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Kitty Thompson: It's that time of the month

Kitty Thompson (Nature Programme Manager at CEN)

Single-use plastic is one of the most widely recognised problems facing our natural environment. But, when people consider the various offending products, conversations do not easily turn to periods. To celebrate Environmenstrual Week 2022, I think it is about bloody time they did…

One pack of sanitary pads contains the same amount of plastic as four carrier bags. Each pad takes 500 years to break down. Though used only once, these products stay around for much, much longer than the individual’s interaction with the product.

The problem is compounded when disposal is also factored in. A whopping 2.5 million tampons are estimated to be flushed down the toilet every single day in the UK. This flies in the face of water industry advice to only flush the four Ps (poo, pee, paper, and puke).

So menstrual products are adding up to 370,000 sewer blockages annually, costing water bill payers £100 million a year to clear.

Worse still, those items that make it past the blockages end up in our natural environment, strewn across our beaches and floating along our rivers. You know what they say: nothing ruins a romantic walk on the beach like treading on a used tampon.

As they begin to degrade, whether in our sewers or in our seas, these products will also begin to shed microplastics into our environment. With the average woman predicted to use 11,000 menstrual products in her lifetime, the potential for wreaking environmental havoc is large.

Many “femcare” startups have emerged in recent years to tackle these problems and more. Unsurprisingly, the UK has become a hotspot for this innovation with different brands honing in on a particular gap in the market.

Flo, an LSE success story, tackles the plastic problem head on by producing plastic-free period products. The brand can now be found in Boots stores across the UK.

Planera is yet another testament to the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of British universities. This UCL-born startup has created the world’s only certified flushable pad which, if adopted at scale, could help to reduce blockages.

With its reusable tampon applicator, Dame has created a reusable alternative to a vital component of many women’s product choices. This, along with reusable period pads and pants, demands a small behavioural change, but is still able to meet customers half way by offering familiarity and convenience.

Innovations such as the Mooncup, on the other hand, have demanded a complete shift in consumer behaviour with their entirely new product concept. They have gained a cult following in the process.

Despite their overall market share remaining very low, the combined effort of these businesses to disrupt the market has piqued the interest of industry incumbents who are starting to update their offering. With highstreet leaders also wanting to get involved, it seems that a sustainable period revolution could be on the cusp of going mainstream.

This boom in the femcare industry brings with it millions of pounds of investment, and plenty of jobs being created in the process. So what can the government do to help, rather than hinder, this market?

Some may argue that the next step is for the heavy hand of the state to come down on the period old guard by adding their plastic products to the long list of items for Defra to ban, like a perverse game of tampon Whac-A-Mole.

While this is certainly an option, it should be considered an absolute last resort when there are other mechanisms available that require a far lighter touch.

In its current form, the welcome and much fought-for scrapping of the “tampon tax” does not include reusable period pants. Acting on calls to put all period products on an equal tax footing would be a positive first step for the government to take.

Extending the polluter pays principle to products, not just their packaging, is another option. By making industry giants tackle the entire lifecycle of their products, they will be incentivised to further embrace sustainability.

In the meantime, the government can focus on disposal from the point of view of consumers. Mandatory labelling for all commonly flushed items, to clearly signal what can and cannot be flushed, is one option that has become popular among some Conservative MPs.

Many millions of women use menstrual products every single month, but knowledge about what these products are actually made of has remained a mystery for most. It is time to push conversational taboos aside in order to support innovative ideas and equip consumers with information to make more informed decisions instead.


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