Are sustainable periods a realistic goal for everyone?

Over the course of their lifetime, a person who menstruates will have on average around 480 periods. Considering the fact that a usual period lasting 5 days could require around 20 tampons in total, this has the potential to produce a significant amount of waste. Traditional sanitary pads and plastic applicator tampons cannot be recycled due to their plastic content, and the ‘large majority’ of this will end up in landfills. This is truly concerning for those of us who use and dispose of these products every month.


To combat this, there have cropped up a whole host of sustainable options available to help make sanitary products more environmentally friendly; it’s never been easier to find a reusable piece of period gear. A major issue, however, can still be found in the struggle to provide these options to marginalised communities, including the homeless population and inhabitants of more disadvantaged countries. If we want sustainable periods to be a possibility for everyone, there’s a lot of work to be done.


The menstrual cup is a hugely popular option for those trying to reduce their environmental impact; if used continually it’s estimated to make up only 5% of the purchase costs and 0.4% of the plastic waste compared to sanitary pads. Furthermore, investing in a menstrual cup could be a more affordable option in the long term. These rubber or silicone products last up to 10 years, and the market price of around £20 could certainly make this a worthwhile expenditure.


If you’re not into more intrusive period products like tampons and menstrual cups, you could try out reusable, washable sanitary pads. These are usually made from more natural materials like soft bamboo and microfibre, and range in their suitability for a heavy or light flow.


Another alternative is to go without any form of pad, tampon or menstrual cup and opt instead for washable period underwear. These can be a beneficial way to maximise comfort and I would recommend them for lighter days of your cycle. Overall, there seem to be a whole host of reusable options that, when considering the cost of purchasing packs of disposable tampons or sanitary pads every month, might be more financially responsible over the years.


Unfortunately, reusable products are not yet an option for everyone. Sanitary products which need to be washed in order to be reused, require facilities like running water and laundry machines which evidently are not accessible to the whole population. This makes sustainable period products less realistic for homeless people and asylum seekers, let alone people from disadvantaged countries.


As Gal-Dem has pointed out, in the UK ‘15% of women aged 14-21 are still struggling to afford period products at all, let alone plastic-free ones’. This is a real concern, and making these items accessible to young people is something that many campaigners have stressed as crucial. Amika George, a young British activist and the founder of the #FreePeriods campaign has called on the government to give free menstrual products to children from low-income families.


It’s clear that sustainable periods, in our society, are ultimately not a realistic goal for every single person. A priority should be making period products freely available to everyone, full stop. For those of us who can afford reusable products, it’s absolutely a great idea to invest in something which might save us money in the long term. It’s also imperative to get informed about important discussions and campaigns surrounding making period products accessible for everyone of all backgrounds, before we expect everyone to be able to use more (initially) expensive and high-maintenance products.


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