By Meadhbh Bolger.

For much of their lives, half of the world’s population need menstrual products to live a decent life, yet many cannot afford them. In the Irish state, they cost an average of €100 per woman per year – and their use, particularly of disposable products made mostly of plastic and a concoction of chemicals, comes with concerning impacts on the environment and on women’s health.

In Northern Ireland and Britain, sanitary products are still subject to a VAT tax rate of five per cent until 2022. Costly, dangerous and with periods often still mired in shame and stigma, the question of access to safer alternatives is a vital environmental and social justice issue to tackle.

Thankfully, as a society – in Ireland, Europe and globally – we are slowly becoming more open to having conversations and initiating actions to address period poverty and access to safe and environmentally friendly menstrual products.

There are inspiring initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland, The Red Box project and Plastic Free Periods; conversations and action at the political level on reducing the environmental impacts of menstrual products; increasing access to products for the most vulnerable; and pushing for regulation on concerning chemicals that make up menstrual products and end up in women’s bodies. The introduction of a period emoji this month is another step forward in normalising conversations around periods.

We need to work together on multiple levels:

  • Access to basic essentials for all – period poverty is real.
  • Ensuring safe products – women need to be in control of what we are put in our bodies.
  • Looking after the planet – making reusable menstrual products more widely available and accessible.
  • Smashing the shame, stigma and taboos around periods.

‘Period poverty’ is real

A survey in June 2018 showed that half of Irish teenagers struggle with the average cost of €10 a month to buy tampons and sanitary towels. The most financially deprived women in the country – including those on direct provision, those in shelters or those who are homeless – are forced to choose between basic essentials.

Initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland are doing fantastic work to tackle this period poverty, and supply menstrual products to these women and girls, and similar initiatives are in action around Europe. Furthermore, on 4 March a cross-party group of female politicians joined forces to propose legislation in the Dáil, urging free menstrual products for women and girls in direct provision, homeless hubs and schools.

What is going into our bodies and who profits from it?

Disposable menstrual pads are made of up to 90 per cent plastic and can contain chemicals like BPA, phthalates and petrochemical additives. These are known endocrine-disrupting substances, linked to heart diseases, infertility and cancer.

Phthalates, which are also a common ingredient in tampon applicators, are known to disrupt hormone function and may lead to multiple organ diseases. A recently-published French investigation confirmed the substances, including these toxic chemicals, released from menstrual products are absorbed by the body.

Women deserve to know what goes into our bodies, but the multi-billion-dollar industry that manufactures feminine and other hygienic products and profits from them, succeeds in making us believe that disposables are not only the most convenient and affordable option, but that they also have no health or environmental risks.

Manufacturing companies are not legally required to disclose all of the ingredients in their products. These gaps in regulation need to be closed and products tested and regulated for safety concerns. Organisations and politicians are pushing to make this happen, for example, through EU legislation to remove hazardous chemicals from all menstrual products and ensure chemicals used are fully disclosed.

Disposable pads and tampons harm the planet

Disposable menstrual products are essentially single-use plastics. In fact, they have recently been defined as such under EU law. During her lifetime, a woman will have her period for up to 3,000 days, the equivalent of 8.2 years and typically will use up to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products – enough to fill two minibuses.

Pads and tampons are the fifth-most common type of waste found on Europe’s beaches, having been flushed down toilets. It can take over 100 years for them to break down, whether in landfills, on illegal dumping grounds, or in seas and oceans. They also block sewage systems. All in all, they have a short lifetime yet a significant negative impact on the marine and other environments, including releasing hazardous chemicals and adding to microplastic pollution.

Better alternatives?

What alternatives do exist? There are actually all kinds of safe plastic-free and toxic-free options available in various shapes and sizes to suit women’s needs and match their comfort level: ultra-absorbent “period underwear” that can be washed and reworn, menstrual cups that can hold three to four times more blood than a tampon, washable organic cotton pads, and EU Ecolabel-certified disposable menstrual products (if reusables are not an option).

But these items aren’t always available, and awareness of them remains low. In addition, reusable period underwear takes a long time to dry, and menstrual cups need to be washed out with warm water every four to eight hours — something that may be difficult for women during the workday.

A major barrier to choice is the upfront cost of these products. However, although they do cost more initially (potentially being a barrier to women already experiencing period poverty), over a woman’s lifetime they are much cheaper than disposables. A single menstrual cup costs around €34, and each pair of period underwear can cost around €30, with multiple pairs needed for one period cycle. Overall, using reusables costs just six per cent of the of the price of disposable menstrual products.

Women who are in the financial position to be able to make a choice need to be better informed: we need more transparency about what is in these products, and more openness when talking about them and periods more generally. Periods are not something that should be kept hidden, and menstrual products are not things that should be quickly used and disposed of without thinking of the harm they cause to women’s health and the environment.

That said, obviously women who use tampons and pads cannot be labelled as plastic polluters when realistically, alternative safe and environmentally friendly options are simply not widely accessible, affordable and usable for all, particularly for women and girls who experience period poverty or are on low incomes. This makes the battle against period poverty – and poverty in general – all the more important for women’s health and the environment.

Meadhbh Bolger is a resource justice campaigner with the environmental and social justice organisation Friends of the Earth Europe. Follow her on Twitter @MeadhbhBolger.

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