Next, deeper into our mine of menstruation information, things become a whole lot murkier, and if I’m honest, significantly smellier. So much for what is in our sanpro, what about where it goes when we’re done with it? We’re now living in the age of the grey bin: a silent accomplice in the women’s bathrooms that swallows up our ‘unmentionables’, which we know will eventually be carted away somewhere out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Aside from the fact that an efficient disposal system such as this is the ultimate upholder of disposable consumer culture, allowing us never to think seriously about our environmental impact, the grey bin is a relatively recent development. Much of WEN’s campaigning in the nineties revolved around the ambiguities surrounding sanitary waste disposal – an area in which women’s issues and environmental issues unequivocally overlap. A strange legal loophole existed in the eighties and nineties where, in typically squeamish fashion, sanpro wasn’t explicitly mentioned in any waste disposal laws; it was technically clinical, or ‘offensive bodily waste’, and so couldn’t be put into the bin, but it was also illegal to flush anything other than your ones and twos down the loo.
The ‘Time of the Month’ Taboo
The Great Period Taboo is one of the most common and pervasive in our society. We all know about some of the euphemisms used to avoid saying ‘period’, like ‘girl flu’ and ‘Aunt Flo’, and if you menstruate, you’ve probably lied more than once about where you were going when you’ve had to buy or use sanpro products.
However, what’s more concerning about this taboo than the questionable euphemisms it’s created is the way it both exacerbates and perpetuates every problem we cover in this blog: effective waste management examined in this post, awareness of health issues covered in Part 2, and the lack of technological innovation in the sanpro industry which we’ll look at in more detail in Part 4. This culture of silence makes it much more difficult to talk about the important issues surrounding menstruation like health, waste, and encouraging innovation.
As we touch on later in Part 4, this is also a problem because women are underrepresented across the board in almost every industry - including those specifically targeted at us, such as beauty and sanpro. This too reveals the period taboo, because while an industry like beauty has made huge innovative developments over the years, the sanpro industry has fallen far behind. It’s a massive obstacle that works hand-in-hand with the social shame surrounding women’s health, bodies and needs. With very few women around the boardroom table, and a taboo against discussing periods, is it any wonder that we have so many environmental, social and health problems connected to menstruation?
WEN’s Sanitary Protection Disposal Campaign, and the multilateral Bag It and Bin It campaign – in association with my personal favourite organisation, Surfers Against Sewage – aimed to raise awareness about the inadequacies of our sewage system to deal with non-biodegradable sanpro waste, and encourage users to bin it instead of flushing it away. Many a photo has surfaced of a grotty beach-comb, with applicators, tampons and pads all found in scarily large numbers littering the glorious British coastline. So as you know, sanpro is not biodegradable. Natural cotton is, sure, after a long time. But almost all sanpro uses plastics, which after many years breaks down into plastic dust, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. All ecosystems, in fact. Including human ones. For those of us who eat marine life, what goes into the sea may well make its way into us. Imagine, next time you tuck into a juicy cod, that same cod gnawing on somebody’s bloody, waterlogged tampon, floating mournfully past some seaweed, and I think you’ll catch my drift.
Sanpro users will use anywhere from 12,000 – 17,000 tampons and/or pads over their lifetimes. That is an awful lot when you think about where it goes. We could each create our own personalised landfill site, full to the brim of bloody by-products of periods past and present. Needless to say, there are preferable alternatives, the environmentally friendlier menstrual cup, reusable menstrual pads. Instead of shaming women for their choices of menstrual products, WEN’s focus has been on encouraging users to dispose of their sanpro effectively, regardless of what they chose to put inside their bodies. To this end, WEN created and sold hundreds of recycled paper bags as part of their Bag It and Bin It campaign, to encourage users to keep their bloodied wares out of the toilet, and out of the oceans. Full disclosure: I definitely used to flush my tampons. It’s easiest, it feels cleanest, less icky than having to wrap it up or whatever. I get it. I know I have friends who still do. But it is definitely better for the environment for your used tamps to end up in landfill, rather than up a turtle’s nose or attached to an unsuspecting surfer’s wetsuit boot.
With the menstrual cup, this issue is almost completely erased. Environmentally, the huge carbon footprint created by the cotton and rayon manufacturing process, including bleaching and pesticides, transport, and eventual disposal in landfill or sewage, is monumentally lessened by the choice of reusable sanitary wear. Sadly, although menstrual cups are a growing section of the sanpro industry, trends are more in favour of new disposable products. According to WEN’s 2012 Seeing Red briefing sheet, the product with the biggest growth in 2010 was feminine hygiene wipes (!) with sales of £4.8 million. And disposable panty liners used between periods are increasing their market share – we spent more than £56 million on them in the same year. It’s endlessly frustrating that the products with the highest growth are disposable, environmentally harmful products that we simply don’t need. Meanwhile, the market share of alternatives such as menstrual cups or reusable pads is so statistically insignificant that the most recent Euromonitor International report on sanpro in the UK neglects to mention them at all.
So is there any hope at all for reusable, green sanpro products? Well, stay tuned for our next blogpost, when we’ll look to the future of menstruation technology by covering a range of environmentally, low-cost options that have sprung up in recent years to rival the big players, in an effort to find our ultimate sanpro saviour.
If this blog series interests you, you may be interested in attending our upcoming WEN Forum event**SEEING RED! - MENSTRUATION & THE ENVIRONMENT** on International Women’s Day 2017
With thanks to Emmett Roberts