The ‘Blue Planet Effect’ following David Attenborough’s celebrated documentary series has led to a wide-ranging and popular ‘War on Plastic’. It has been endorsed by both the Prime Minister and the Queen; while organisations across the land, ranging from the BBC and Parliament to small businesses, have taken action to reduce or eliminate single use plastics. But while our cultural acceptance of the ubiquity of throwaway plastic is undergoing a serious challenge, attitudes to the 4.3 billion disposable sanitary products (sanpro) that are used in the UK every year seem slower to change, despite the large amount of plastic they contain. Hardly anyone would flush plastic bags down the loo, but we don’t apply the same standard to sanpro.
The Marine Conservation Society, through its annual beach litter monitoring, notes that the ‘sewage related debris’ (flushed plastics) makes up approximately 8.5% of beach litter in the UK; a figure that has been rising each year. Eunomia has a longstanding engagement with the issue of marine plastic, including working with European Commission (EC) investigating the quantity of micro plastics input to the sea and the options for reducing this. Eunomia’s research supported the European Commission in drafting the first ever Europe-wide Plastics Strategy. Launched on January 16th, the landmark publication features a host of recommendations for managing plastics more sustainably.
Last year Katharine co-authored a blog about the taboo around menstrual hygiene and the potential benefits of reusable menstrual products (RUMPs). Since then, others including City to Sea, No More Taboo and the Women’s Environmental Network have engaged with this difficult waste stream. There has been discussion around challenging the taboo, tackling period poverty and making sanpro more sustainable. Slowly, periods seem to be gaining their rightful acceptance as a normal topic of conversation; while this progress should be celebrated there is still much to do.
It is encouraging, for example, to see the issue of period poverty recognised. Lack of access to sanpro is a factor in teenage girls missing school, and both Wales and Scotland are looking to tackle the issue. Thanks to the work of Councillor Elyn Stephens, Rhondda Cynon Taf has voted to provide free sanpro to girls in all schools, one of the first councils to do so. In Scotland, MSP Monica Lennon’s bill to end period poverty has been backed by 96% of respondents to a public consultation paving the way for a universal system of free provision of sanitary products.
These schemes should be applauded for their social benefits, but they’re missing any mention of the role of reusable menstrual products (RUMPs). RUMPs have the potential to help with period poverty – in the long run the cost can be as little as 6% of that of disposables – saving thousands of pounds for whoever is paying for the provision of sanpro.
The economic benefits of changing attitudes to sanpro are also being recognised by water companies. City to Sea has been working via the 21st Century Drainage Programme to change the habits of people who flush disposable wipes, sanpro, cotton buds and tooth-floss down the toilet. It is estimated that 80% of sewer flooding incidents are caused by the 366,000 sewer blockages that occur each year, from people flushing a variety of things down the drain, including disposable sanpro.
City to Sea has identified that the number one reason for people flushing single use plastics like sanpro is a lack of awareness that it causes problems. Other factors include period shame, hygiene concerns and a perception that the toilet is a second bin. A key area of their work has taken place in schools, educating young people about the issue before flushing becomes an established habit.
The schools-based campaign also aims to empower young women to make positive and informed menstruation choices. The programme provided information regarding reusable alternatives, with participants being given free samples if they wanted to try them. Currently, not all schools are required to educate students about periods but the government plans to use powers under the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to require PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) to be taught in all schools, perhaps as soon as September 2019. There will be flexibility over how these subjects are delivered, but it presents a fantastic opportunity to educate girls about managing their periods and correct disposal of sanpro.
City to Sea is piloting a holistic education programme, ‘Periods: the Facts’. In addition to explaining what menstruation is and the different sanpro options available, it includes discussion of the myths and taboos associated with periods and the issue of period poverty. It also examines the environmental impacts of incorrect disposal, covering topics from drainage systems and waterways to landfill and water treatment processes.
Students will be made aware of the chemicals used in most disposable sanpro and the effects these have on the marine environment. So far it has been rolled out across 22 schools and reached over 6,000 young people. It is too early to fully assess the pilot, but so far teacher training sessions have received positive feedback, and the programme looks likely to be rolled out nationwide in 2019.
City to Sea is also engaging with Proctor & Gamble (parent company to Always and Tampax), Li-Lets and the NHS to help them give greater emphasis to the ‘do not flush’ message in their educational programmes.
A great deal of encouraging progress has been made in the last year, but much more remains to be done. As the Environmental Audit Committee has identified, prevention at source is the most viable option for reducing micro-plastics in the oceans; but waste prevention is also top of the waste hierarchy. In an increasingly plastic conscious world we all need to take responsibility to ensure that menstrual products are not left out of the discussion.
Improving how disposable sanpro is managed will help to prevent it entering the sea; making disposable sanpro biodegradable will help further reduce marine plastics and cut the amount of plastic we are using as a society. However so long as disposables rule the roost, sanpro will remain a sizeable and difficult to recycle waste stream.
We recognise that RUMPs may not be for everyone or for all circumstances, and some women will continue to find disposables better meet their needs. However, ideally, we should be aiming to reach the point where the next generation of young woman and girls will consider disposables to be outdated products for occasional use. Meanwhile, RUMPs should be recognised as an innovative technology, not a niche product for environmental activists, and should become the default option.
Finally, we would like to be the first to wish you a Happy Menstrual Hygiene day in advance of Monday 28th May. With any luck, by the time this date rolls around again in 2019, there will be further major advances to report, and the amount of sanpro washing up on our beaches might even have started to reduce.