In the 1980s, global warming started to become increasingly prominent in the international public debate. In 1988 there was international agreement for the World Meteorological Organization and UNEP to jointly establish an intergovernmental assessment of the impacts and response options of climate change. Around the same time, in 1985, Courtney Cox the star of the global hit TV show ‘Friends’ became the first person to say the word “period” on American television. Though they both might not seem that closely connected, it can be said that both menstruation and climate change have only recently become a part of the global discourse. Dialogues over the first were delayed because women have not had much agency over their bodies throughout history. Conversations about the environment are now of immediate concern because after many years of industrialisation we have only recently begun to understand the long lasting effects of our actions on the planet.
Another reason may be because measuring the environmental impact of menstrual products is difficult and complex as there is a stark lack of scientific literature exploring issues such as period poverty. The term ‘period poverty’ is used to describe the struggles many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products. This article will explore how both climate change and period poverty have a bunch of issues in common, specifically regarding areas of health, sanitation, poverty and accessibility.
Sanitation and its connection to period poverty
Sanjay Wijesejera, UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene says “meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity and public health.” During menstruation a woman’s most basic requirement is access to clean water and safe period products. Since lower and middle–income countries lack WASH facilities, many menstruators around the world do not have the luxury of choice when it comes to period products. Ecological menstrual products like cloth pads and cups require sufficient water and heating provisions to wash and sanitize. In countries where menstruation is still a taboo topic, women may not be able to use said products due to lack of privacy (such as not being able to dry cloth pads in public or use a tampon due to cultural concerns with insertion). On the other hand, most conventional menstrual products are harmful to the environment because the cheaper they are the more they are laden with plastic and chemicals of concern that are unnecessary. In terms of the raw materials in disposable menstrual products, pads can contain up to 90% plastic, which largely end up in landfills or waterbodies.
Impact of inaccessibility of period products
This lack of access disproportionately impacts BIPOC and women from vulnerable communities. The barrier to the use of reusable products which is highly dependent on overall cost and location, leads to various waste management concerns in many areas around the world. Since many developing countries lack any kind of transparency when it comes to ingredients, these products including the plastic applicators and wrappers end up polluting waterways, streets and beaches, especially in low-income communities that have under-funded waste disposal systems. The world’s oceans too are heavily affected by period products. During the breakdown process of disposable products and their plastic packaging, microplastics are produced. These microplastics alter marine ecosystems. When menstrual products are flushed down the toilet, they too directly affect marine environments; single-use menstrual products and their packaging are one of the most commonly found items within the ocean. According to a report by the European Commission, disposable menstrual products are the fifth most common type of waste washing up on beaches.
Period equity for a cleaner planet
26% of the global population menstruates each day. That means about 800 million people daily. The reason it becomes important to link climate change with period poverty and not just treat it as a health or gender equity issue is because it affects our planet’s ecosystem. True period equity addresses the issue of period poverty and the lack of access, as well as the need for a sustainable solution to conventional period products. Plastic free period options must be the norm to prevent further plastic pollution impacting the same communities in the long run.
In August 2022 Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. It has now been over six months since this move and no other country has done the same. If countries want to truly help towards creating sustainable environment policies then a great first step would be to focus on increasing the accessibility and affordability of natural and organic period products. Policy makers across the world need to acknowledge the connection between periods and climate justice, because they are interrelated in many ways and understanding them is necessary for impactful change.