Plastic, Periods and Poverty – Saving the Environment or Shaming Women?

Shaming women into shelling out money for expensive replacements of necessary plastic sanitary products is not the way to protect the environment.

As we step into the New Year, talk and thoughts inevitably concentrate on resolutions for the coming 12 months.

This year, more than ever, it feels there is a move away from vowing to exercise more, save money, lose a few pounds or learn a new skill such as pottery or cheese making.

No, this year we are focusing our efforts on reducing the P word.

Plastic. Now, your plastic consumption is a barometer of your eco-conscience and a word uttered in hushed tones in polite society.

I care about the environment. I don’t eat meat or fish. I use public transport. I have a reusable drinking water bottle and a brick in my toilet cistern. And obviously, I don’t leave the tap running while I brush my teeth. That’s a given.

I will happily use bags for life and do my best to avoid unnecessary packaging.

But there is one thing I won’t do in the name of being eco friendly and thinking of the planet’s future – and it is not because I am unwilling to forgo a luxury.

The P word also stands for period. And this is where I will not be shamed for how I manage my menses.

A couple of months ago,Tesco launched a new range of plastic-free, organic sanitary range produced by Time Of The Month. It takes around 500 years for a regular tampon to decompose and over our menstrual lifetime, the average woman throws away around 150kg of tampons, applicators and pads. It’s not just the applicators which are plastic, the tampons and pads contain rayon and polyester.

Well, so be it.

Here is yet another example of women being shamed. Not for pursuing an extravagant lifestyle, but for getting through day to day life.

Women have no choice but to ‘throw away’ pads and tampons. Despite being taxed as a luxury they are very much necessary for women and girls. How long they take to decompose is not our fault. It’s not about being eco-friendly.

I am not wilfully pumping pads into the oceans choking whales and enveloping marine life with my months old pads.

We can only buy what is available at a reasonable cost. These new eco pads at Tesco cost £3.30 for 9, making them inaccessible for many women and girls.

Use a mooncup! I can hear the calls.

No thanks. And that doesn’t make me a climate hater. It makes me someone who absolutely believes in choice. If you scream that I should be popping in a mooncup or making my own material pads and popping them in the wash with my bedsheets, I will say no. I have the right to eschew eco-friendly pads.

I have no desire to learn to use a mooncup. And that is my choice.

For many, it is not a choice but a necessity:

  • Women who do not have access to adequate washing facilities to ensure a menstrual cup or material pad is properly cleaned.
  • Culturally, there are many women who will not use any menstrual aid which requires insertion into the vagina.
  • Women who work in call centres or distribution warehouses where toilet breaks are timed and certainly do not allow for hand washing, taking out, washing and re inserting of menstrual cups and further hand washing.
  • Women without enough money, never mind disposable income. Being poor costs money. The £20 outlay for a menstrual cup, despite the long-term savings, is beyond many women. As is the extra cost of washing, detergents etc for material pads. This is where the ‘real life’ TV shows featuring politicians and celebrities living for a week on £1 a day, completely miss the point. It is not about one week. It is about the relentless nature of life. A washing machine breaking, new school shoes needed, bus fares to work. Financially factoring in £20 for a menstrual cup is a million miles from a woman’s thoughts when she is trying to put food on the table and heat her home.
  • Girls in school. Only this year there was the story of a pupil, getting her first period during a class, and not being allowed to go the the toilet until breaktime as she did not have a £10 ‘medical pass’ from a doctor. (Periods are not an illness but that is an argument for another day). Academies have their own rules and any deviation can lead to hours in isolation or exclusion. If a girl cannot leave class to avoid bleeding on her uniform and desk chair, it would seem unlikely she would be afforded the luxury of attending to her menstrual cup during a maths class. And even if she was, what teenage girl wants to wash out her menstrual blood from a cup in the sink of a communal toilet?


No matter how it is couched. A choice is not a choice if there is no choice.

It is the responsibility of sanitary product manufacturers to sort themselves out and produce products fit for our times, at a price that is affordable and not only for the wealthy. It is not acceptable to put the onus on women.

I have no choice in having a period every month.

But I am fortunate that I have a choice in how I manage my menstruation. And no amount of plastic shaming is going to change my habits.


Emma Chesworth is a senior caseworker in Middlesborough, a qualified journalist, and a regular contributor on regional television, radio and the press on women's issues.

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