Natasha Piette-Basheer urges us all to take ‘Environmenstrual’ action
Addressing the very natural phenomenon of menstruation has long been taboo in most societies. It is concealed or relegated to a whisper, as if it were a dark secret, far from being accepted as a natural or healthy part of life. These days, the impending climate crisis has propelled some to put menstruation at the forefront of the solutions to help rid the planet of single-use plastic. You might be wondering what the link is between periods, taboos and the environment. It is a question that has become paramount at Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) where I work as a campaigner. We are a UK based charity fighting global problems around gender, health and the environment by taking action on issues that affect our bodies, homes and neighbourhoods.
To put the problem into context, the European Commission recently found that menstrual products are the fifth most common type of single-use plastic waste washed up on beaches.1 If you were to buy a conventional box of menstrual pads, the plastic content would equate to five carrier bags.2 An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year, and 49% of this is single-use plastic.3 Plastic takes around 500 years to break down and it never disappears, it just turns into smaller particles which end up in our water, soil and food. It has been estimated that, in the European Union, nearly 50 billion units of single-use menstrual products were consumed in 2017, equating to an annual generation of around 590,000 tonnes of waste.4
While these alarming findings have recently gained more attention among those already aware of environmental issues, there is still an urgent need to take our efforts further and encourage others to take practical steps to curb their period plastic footprint. In 2018, Wen launched the national Environmenstrual Campaign to raise awareness of hidden plastic and chemicals in conventional menstrual products and to promote reusable and organic options. Part of the campaign includes a workshop programme in schools, universities, and community centres which aims to fill the gap in period education which often fails to address the wider environmental and health contexts of menstruation.
To replicate this workshop model, Wen has set up the flagship Environmenstrual Ambassador Programme designed to train, educate and support the growing number of individuals who wish to be equipped with the tools necessary to enable young people and adults to have access to all the information they need to make informed choices about which menstrual products to use.
At these workshops, ambassadors learn plastic pollution facts, viable plastic-free and reusable solutions (did you know, using menstrual cups results in a 99% reduction in waste compared to single-use products?), and explore creative ways to tackle period stigma. The training qualifies them to deliver their own Environmenstrual Workshops in their individual localities across the UK. Ultimately, we envision the programme to reach over 2,000 people by the end of 2020.
We are pleased to be able to offer the training programme and resources to volunteers for free, with thanks to Waitrose and Partners’ Plan Plastic Fund. By offering free training, we are able to make the Environmenstrual message as accessible as possible.
The Environmenstrual Ambassador Programme is the first of its kind. It uses a multi-pronged approach to prevent period plastic from ending up in landfill or in our seas and rivers. Ambassadors raise awareness of how we, as consumers, can influence change by lobbying manufacturers and supermarkets to remove period plastic from their production lines and shelves. Their workshops will not only be provided in schools, but will also crucially reach the general population, whether that be in a workplace, university, or community centre setting.
From February 2020 onwards, our first cohort of 50 Environmenstrual Ambassadors will be working with Wen towards creating a world in which plastic from periods is a thing of the past. We have been thrilled by the interest in the first round of training; there is a real demand, not only in the UK but internationally. While the first training is oversubscribed, we hope to secure funding to help us expand the programme and make it accessible virtually for a second cohort of ambassadors.
1. European Commission, Reducing Marine Litter: Action on Single-use Plastics and Fishing Gear (May 2018), tinyurl.com/EC-single-use-plastics
2. Natracare, ‘How much plastic is in sanitary pads?’, tinyurl.com/natracare-plastic
3. European Parliament, ‘Plastic in the ocean: the facts, effects and new EU rules’ (October 2018), tinyurl.com/europarl-plastics
4. Alba Cabrera and Rosa Garcia, The Environmental and Economic Cost of Single-use Menstrual Products, Baby Nappies and Wet Wipes (November 2019), tinyurl.com/bffp-single-use-products
What can you do?
- Get involved in the Environmenstrual Ambassador Programme. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Educate yourself. Check out our resources at www.wen.org.uk/our-work/environmenstrual
- If you are an organisation or business that wants to improve the availability of sustainable menstrual products in the UK, join the Environmenstrual Coalition at www.wen.org.uk/coalition
If you are a teacher or educator, sign up to the nationwide Rethink Periods education programme at www.citytosea.org.uk/plasticfreeperiods/rethink-periods
This article was originally published in JUNO Early Spring, issue 65.