Plastic-Free Periods: Eco-Friendly Sanitary Products
The Campaign for Plastic-Free Periods Is a Growing Movement
Sanitary products for feminine hygiene have been used for millennia, but only in the 20th century did they become mass-produced commodity items. With the advent of synthetic polymers and plastic in sanitary items, their disposal has now become an environmental issue, especially if designed for single use only.
Thanks to the rising awareness of ocean pollution and the plastic garbage gyres as highlighted in TV presentations such as the BBC’s Blue Planet more and more campaigners, and women in particular are encouraging plastic-free periods. Indeed, this movement is seen as part of a new feminist movement1.
This movement goes back all the way to 1989. Meet UK based Susie Hewson, founder of Natracare, amongst the first companies to promote and sell biodegradable sanitary products. Hewson says2:
Natracare is my promise to women to provide quality, organic and natural solutions for intimate hygiene and personal care without ever compromising ethically. Our resolve is to continue to educate women about the irritating and damaging types of ingredients that go into leading brands and their effects on health and wellbeing.
Biodegradable products were available before then, but increasingly, companies have chosen to incorporate widely available synthetics and plastics to diversify and enhance their range with little concern for environmental impacts. This process has accelerated and it’s taken pioneers like Hewson to promote an alternative vision. It’s only now, 20 years later, that consumer concerns and expectations are forcing manufacturers to reconsider their products. Natracare products are now marketed in over 63 countries.
Breaking the Plastic Cycle, Period
Ella Daish is a young British pioneer following in Hewson’s footsteps, highlighting plastic sanitary waste washing up on the Welsh coastline and campaigning for plastic-free periods. Daish says of plastic applicators3:
"Plastic tampon applicators are used for seconds, yet take centuries to break down, and they have avoidable impacts on the environment."
These colourful devices in blue, orange, green, purple and yellow represent a “rainbow of plastic pollution” according to Daish. Unfortunately, most such plastic items including towels and pads are flushed down the toilet to end up polluting waterways and oceans.
The UK Women's Environmental Network is campaigning for better education and environmentally safer products but some manufacturers remain stubborn. Since 2004, increasing momentum and concern among consumers is building up. Supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s are contemplating eliminating unnecessary plastics in such products altogether.
Several environmentally sound alternatives to non-biodegradable sanitaryware are proposed from cups to products of cardboard and disposable pants4. They need not represent a loss in quality. As Dr. Vanessa Mackay says5:
"It is important that women have as much choice as possible when managing their periods. It may also be more financially sustainable for women as a number of these products – washable sanitary towels for example – will not need to be replaced so regularly."
The movement to end plastic in sanitary products is still in its infancy but positive change seems to be approaching. As Ella Daish says6:
With the problems of single-use plastic gaining huge media attention, this has naturally put this topic at the forefront of many people’s thoughts, making them consider the role of plastic in their lives, the waste it produces and the damage it causes worldwide. So it is an amazing feeling when people get in touch with me or mention on social media that because of the campaign, they have opted for eco-friendly alternatives. Knowing that the very people supporting the campaign feel so passionately about what it stands for, so much so that they are willing to make personal changes, inspires me and makes me feel like I am really making a positive difference.
She summarises with a five-word caption: Breaking the plastic cycle, period.