Plastic, Periods and the Price of Moral Menstruation

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

Recently, a guy I used to know (and when I say know I mean secretly fancied for about six years despite him not giving me the time of day) shared a video on Facebook about using plastic free sanitary products to help clean up the oceans.

The clip was full of useful information and made a valid point about plastic pollution. The news that one pack of sanitary pads contains the equivalent plastic of four carrier bags was enlightening. The fact that 2.5 million tampons a day are flushed through our overflowing sewers and into the oceans was a revelation. How moral, I thought. How refreshing to see a young man showing sensitivity towards the plight of the planet and being wholly unashamed to raise the taboo topic of periods. You can see why my inner teenage self once again emerged as I gave the video a cheeky heart react.

The video was made in conjunction with Natracare, a company that makes plastic free, biodegradable feminine hygiene products. The product’s ethical credentials are impressive – they are ‘animal friendly and vegetarian approved, sustainably sourced, multi-award winning, certified organic and Totally Chlorine Free (TCF).’ There are also conclusive personal benefits, as they are supported by gynaecologists who promote them as a way of relieving vaginal irritation caused by synthetic products. All in all, what is not to love?

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Well upon closer inspection, whilst the ethical intention is admirable there is a deeper issue that must be addressed. The problem of ‘period plastic’ is dualistic, revolving not just around whether a woman chooses to use an environmentally friendly product, but also around whether she can afford to.

Natracare is sold in UK stores, like Waitrose and Holland and Barret, and online realtors such as Ocado and Amazon. This means accessing the items would not be a major issue for most people, but, in comparison to alternative brands, the cost is considerably more. The average price for a standard 16 pack of Natracare tampons across six stores was £3.02. Let’s say for argument’s sake you buy 12 packs a year (though obviously this is a VERY conservative estimate for some of us), this means a woman would have to spend £36.24. In comparison, own brand tampons from Boots, Superdrug, Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s have an average price of 99p resulting in a yearly cost of £11.88. That’s an annual saving of £24.36.

This might not sound much, especially when the cost of not switching to plastic free is the price of one planet. However, for those who live hand to mouth or who can barely survive on a minimum wage, the luxury of moral menstruation is not one they can afford. £24.36 could be the difference between a monthly bill being paid on time or a car being filled with petrol to get to a much-needed job interview. Personally, that extra saving would buy me enough food for a fortnight.

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Furthermore, £24.36 is just a fraction of the overall cost of a monthly bleed – there is the additional expense of panty liners, sanitary pads, menstrual cups, hygiene wipes and let’s not forget the price of pride when an unexpected visit from Mother Nature means a new set of underwear needs to be purchased. These cumulative charges saw MP Danielle Rowley estimate that “the average cost of a period in the UK over a year is £500”.

There have been many debates over whether period products should be made freely available for women and I cannot say I disagree with the idea. After all, no girl choose to bleed every month – it is a biological function that is unavoidable and often garners little sympathy from those who do not understand the effects it can have on hormone levels and physical well-being. The price of personal care is ridiculous, yet despite frequent calls for subsidised sanitary care or at the very least the abolition of the tampon tax, as of yet women are still effectively being charged for their unpreventable discharge.

In light of this, it is unreasonable to expect women to consider the environmental impact when the personal price is so dear. I support the notion of being environmentally sustainable and I admire those (including my unrequited love interest) who consciously make this effort. I am all for saving the seas, whittling down our waste and protecting the planet, but I will not stand for anyone who calls out women for adding to the endangerment of the earth. Your heart might metaphorically bleed for the marine wildlife that is choking on our rubbish, but we bleed for real and to expect women to take up an additional cost for the privilege is absurd.

There is no doubt that we need to tackle our overuse of plastic, and clips like the one on my Facebook feed are helpful for raising awareness. But, making plastic free periods a reality can only occur if the wider debate over the price of sanitary products is engaged with. Women should not be forced to choose between ethically lining their pants and economically lining their purses. Meaningful transformation will require more than a viral video promoting an ethical product that is only accessible to the privileged few.

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Third year History student with a passion for journalism. I have a particular interest in minority rights, historical comparisons and current affairs. Unapologetic feminist.

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