Object of Concern: “Bad Blood” The Stigma Behind Feminine Products
We are faced with the next biggest environmental challenge but are treating it as if it is the elephant in the room due to the stigma and taboo that engulfs it. The elephant is the impact that feminine hygiene products have on the environment and the health of women around the world. Menstruation has been viewed as “bad blood” since the beginning of modern civilization. Why is it that we view this natural process so poorly when “over 50% of the world’s population menstruates, and yet conversations about feminine hygiene and the ecological impact of product choices women make in the space, wasn’t spoken about. In fact, the taboo surrounding menstrual periods stunted the development of new products in the space with little to no innovations for over 80 years”(Shreya). Due to the lack of knowledge on feminine hygiene products and their impact on the environment, it has raised concern for the health of our planet moving forward.
Menstruation has been a symbol of taboo and “bad blood” for many centuries. From ancient Greece to the modern era, women have been silenced and shamed for a process that is completely natural. The history of feminine hygiene products has always been a matter of secrecy until recent years. Let's go back in time and start in the 1800s. From about 1800-1900s women relied on homemade menstrual cloths but over time this process raised concern of bacterial infection. This concern sparked the creation of the first menstrual cup, which was made from aluminum or hard rubber, and rubber pants, which were just underwear lined with rubber. Many of these creations were reusable and had no negative environmental impact at the time. During World War 1, nurses discovered that,” cellulose was much more effective at absorbing blood compared to cloth bandages which inspired the first cellulose Kotex sanitary napkin, made from surplus high-absorption war bandages”(Kotler). This new concept of disposable feminine hygiene products was quickly becoming the new norm. By 1921 Kotex sanitary napkins were being mass-marketed and produced.
This allowed women to have more control over their autonomy and allowed them to work during their menstruation period. In 1933, the modern disposable tampon was patented under the familiar name of Tampax. Tampons were made from cotton and cardboard. From the 50s to the 90s tampons grew in popularity and began to be made of different plastics for a “leak- proof” design. Now we jump forward to 2020. Today we have a wide range of options in ways to manage our flow.
With rising environmental concern, many women are switching to reusable or sustainable organic methods. These sustainable methods include silicone menstrual cups and reusable pads. Although the history of feminine hygiene products has changed drastically over the years, the stigma behind menstruation is still present today and highly influences women's product choices. Resulting in such high levels of feminine hygiene product waste.
Tampons and pads are not just stopping a women’s natural flow, it is also stopping the flow of waterways and harming wildlife in the process. This happens when these feminine products are not disposed of properly. When looking at the world of disposable feminine hygiene products there are many environmental concerns around it. In some countries, such as Canada, disposable feminine hygiene products are classified as single use plastics and their nation is working towards more sustainable solutions in the year of 2021. Versus the United States where “it’s labeled as medical waste and does not need to be tracked”(Borunda). In the United States alone nearly 20 billion sanitary napkins, applicators and tampons are dumped into landfills each and every year. This means that roughly 55 million feminine products are dumper each day. These products can take centuries to break down. Single use plastic is one of many concerns revolving around feminine products. The production of tampons and pads are also very taxing on the world of Agriculture. According to the World Wildlife Organization, “cotton production requires the use of harmful agrochemicals (especially pesticides), high levels of water consumption and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use”(Collie). When looking at the cradle to grave life cycle of feminine hygiene products we can see the negative impacts throughout the process, starting here with agriculture and ending up in a landfill. Feminine products are a colossal waste burden with very little awareness. When looking at the life cycle “conducted by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm'', they have found that, “the largest impact on global warming was caused by the processing of LDPE (low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from the monomer ethylene) used in tampon applicators as well as in the plastic back-strip of a sanitary napkin requiring high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy”(Shreya). When looking at the math behind this, a year's worth of hygiene products would leave a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents. Our society has treated menstruation as taboo, which has forced many women to resort to single use products since they are easy to hide and dispose of.
Risks and Hazards:
Many women feel as if they are misunderstood when experiencing the natural process of menstruation. Solutions to menstruation have not been studied enough to have a beneficial and healthy alternative for women. This is an example of Risk perception. “Risk Perception is a “phenomenon, and related field of study, describing the tendency of people to evaluate the hazardousness of a situation or decision in not-always-rational terms, depending on individual biases, culture, or human tendencies” (Robbins). In the world that is biased towards women reproduction and views menstruation as “bad blood” or taboo, we have stunted the research needed to provide women with healthy hygiene products. Due to this slow crawl in research, female products have gone unregulated. According to Women’s Voice for the Earth, “Unregulated toxic chemicals in feminine care products may result in serious health problems, like increased risk of breast cancer, reproductive problems, asthma, and allergic reactions,” They continue to address the chemicals that can be found in this unregulated feminine hygiene products, “Chemicals of concern commonly used include carcinogens, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, and allergens”(Women’s Voice for the Earth). Risk perception and the lack of regulation in female products go hand in hand. With the lack of science and education behind women's health we have blocked ourselves from proceeding further in the field of women's health. This is where the largest issue lies. Making menstruation and womens health a topic of discussion and concern will open the door for better alternatives for feminine hygiene products that can be both beneficial to the women’s reproductive system and save the planet. As Borunda once said, “All that menstrual fluid has to go somewhere” and in a single-use cotton pad or tampon at the landfill shouldn't have to be the only option.
In our society today, in order to combat climate change, we need to address the topics that are taboo or that are out of our comfort zones. We can longer ignore the issues at hand that revolve around women's health when it is roughly 50% of the population. We need to start working towards changing the status quo and finding solutions that benefit mother earth while also addressing the concerns of women’s health. We cannot expect change if we cannot look the problem in the face. “Change will come, when the conversations change”(Bobel). When we can finally sit comfortably and discuss solutions for the world's leading single use plastics and pollution contributors, that is when we can make beneficial changes. So to those that read this, it's okay to find discomfort in this topic but know that half the people in your lives are affected by these issues and that your voice and choices will not only spark discussion but will change the pathways of climate change and move us towards a green future.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society : A Critical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/humboldt/detail.action?docID=1582846.
Jennifer Kotler, PhD. “How Modern Tampons and Pads Were Developed.” What Did Women Use before Tampons and Pads?, Clue, 10 Nov. 2020, helloclue.com/articles/culture/a-short-history-of-modern-menstrual-products.
Whitaker, Image by Hannah. “How Tampons and Pads Became so Unsustainable.” Environment, 18 Oct. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic/.
Shreya. “The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products.” Technology and Operations Management, 4 Nov. 2016, digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/the-ecological-impact-of-feminine-hygiene-products/.
“Chem Fatale - Toxic Chemicals in Feminine Care Products.” Women's Voices for the Earth, 10 Jan. 2020, www.womensvoices.org/menstrual-care-products/chem-fatale-report/chem-fatale-fact-sheet/.
Collie, Meghan. “Pads and Tampons Can Harm the Environment. What's the Alternative?” Global News, Global News, 23 Feb. 2020, globalnews.ca/news/6535090/pads-tampons-climate-change/.