Jasmine Tribe explains why education is key to removing taboos and empowering people to make sustainable period choices
As our understanding of the climate and ecological emergencies grows, more and more community groups, charities and individuals are working to equip younger generations to live sustainably. Education that explores nature connection, body literacy, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, compassion and inclusivity, personal and community empowerment and global issues, has a crucial role to play in our journey to creating a new way of living together.
With a challenge of this scale, it’s crucial that we understand the causes of our unsustainable behaviours, which are largely rooted in social injustice and inequality. In 2017, a coalition of scientists, economists, policymakers, researchers, and businesspeople published Project Drawdown, which ranked the top 80 ways to tackle climate change. Many people were surprised to see that number 6 on the list was “Educating Girls”, and number 7 was “Family Planning”.
City to Sea, a non-profit organisation which campaigns to prevent plastic pollution at source, is combining female health education with raising environmental awareness through their schools programme, Rethink Periods. A study by Plan UK of 1000 girls aged 14–21, found that:
- 1 in 4 did not know what to do when they first started their period
- One third were not told about periods by their parents
- 48% were embarrassed by their period
Historical and cultural taboos and stigma around menstruation have prevented people from receiving proper education about what is happening in their bodies. People are unaware of what is normal and what should be viewed as a warning sign, as well as what products they can use to help manage their periods.
The toxic combination of societal shame and lack of education has created a growing environmental problem. Many are shocked to hear that one pack of period pads contains the same amount of plastic as 5 carrier bags. Most tampons also contain a plastic weave, some have single-use plastic applicators, and many come in multiple layers of packaging.
With people using their toilet as a bin, research shows that 1–2 billion period products are flushed down the toilet every year in the UK. Flushed period products, wet wipes, cotton buds, plasters – anything other than poo, toilet paper and pee – block up our sewers, causing them to overflow into our homes, streets, rivers and seas. Period products are the fifth most common item found littering European beaches.
What a bloody disaster!
Luckily there are now a huge number of sustainable products helping people across the globe to turn the tide on plastic pollution from our periods including organic, plastic-free disposable tampons, pads and liners; reusable tampon applicators; menstrual cups, period pants and washable pads.* Although cups, period pants and reusable pads are more expensive than disposable products to buy upfront, huge savings can be made in the long term. In fact, over someone’s menstruating lifetime, they can save up to 98% of what they would have spent on disposables by switching to reusables.
City to Sea’s Plastic-Free Periods campaign has been working for the last four years to make environmentally friendly period products more accessible for all, through engaging high-street retailers, the NHS, the government and, most recently, schools.
Rethink Periods, City to Sea’s schools programme launched in 2019 with the help of Waitrose and the Women’s Environmental Network (Wen), is designed to shake up period education by training teachers and school nurses to deliver up-to-date, informative and unbiased period lessons to primary and secondary school students.
The Rethink Periods teaching resources cover four key areas:
- Menstruation and period products
- Periods and the environment
- Myths, taboos and celebrations
- Period poverty
Lessons are suitable for all genders and come with a range of supporting resources such as lesson plans, teacher guidance, activity sheets, letter templates for parents, FAQs and in-depth product information. Everyone trained on the programme also receives a free product demonstration box containing the full range of period products, so that students can see and experience products first-hand, helping to tackle some taboos and misunderstandings.
After attending a training session, a teacher from Bristol said: “This training is of great use – as an individual, as an educator and as a member of society.” Another described the training as “life-changing!” So far 180 teachers and school nurses have received training with a reach of more than 31,000 students. By June, 600 teachers and school nurses across England will have received the free training and resources, and City to Sea is hoping to roll out the programme more widely in the new school year.
The education programme comes at a perfect time to compliment both updates in the PSHE/RSE curriculum and the Department for Education’s scheme to provide free period products for primary and secondary school students. The government scheme was welcomed with open arms, particularly by campaigner Amika George who founded the Free Periods campaign when she was just 18 years old. Finally, a bold step in the right direction for menstrual rights and equality!
The DfE scheme was announced around the same time that the government challenged schools to go single-use plastic-free by 2022, something which would be impossible if all the period products provided to schools were standard tampons and pads from big brands. In fact, if the only option was for schools to order single-use, non-organic products for students, this would have amounted to 90 million carrier bags in just one year! City to Sea lobbied the Department for Education to only provide plastic-free products to schools, allowing schools to stick to their plastic-free target, and offering products that are better for the environment and for student health. Through the new scheme, delivered by phs Group, schools can now order organic disposable products, reusable pads and menstrual cups for their students, in addition to conventional disposable products.
City to Sea thinks that it’s crucial that proper education accompanies the free product provision, to help tackle cultural shame, taboos and misunderstandings around menstruation. Access to products and proper education has the power to tackle period poverty, reduce our impact on the planet and empower future generations. And that’s why we need to ‘Rethink Periods’!
Jasmine Tribe is a marine conservationist and activist who coordinates City to Sea’s Plastic-Free Periods campaign and runs a non-profit organisation called Oceans Festival UK.
Visit about City to Sea for more information about their Plastic-Free Periods campaign
Visit Rethink Periods for more information and to sign up to a free training place
Not a teacher or school nurse but want to run workshops on this subject in your community? Sign up to be an ambassador here
This feature is published in JUNO Spring 2020, issue 66. Find out more about print and digital issues of JUNO Magazine here.