Up to 2 billion period products are flushed down the loo in the UK each year, many of them ending up in the ocean. Period products are the 5th most common item found on beaches in Europe – more common than plastic coffee cups, straws and cutlery. So why isn’tmore being done about them?
It’s not as if reusable alternatives are a recent invention. Always ahead of the curve, my wife, Helen, started using reusable pads over 25 years ago, and experimented with the first menstrual cups around the same time. Yet here we are, in 2021, and on average we are still finding 5 plastic period products on every 100 m of our beaches. Wheredid we go wrong? On a personal level, I think we made the mistake of believing that changing our individual behaviour was enough to change the world. We thought the same about not eating meat and not driving a car. How wrong we were. This was around the time that large corporations started spending millions on promoting the idea that saving the planet is the responsibility of each of us as individuals – rather than of the companies that profit from manufacturing unsustainable products like plastic or extracting the oil and gas used to make them. You can read more about this here. Like many people, we naively bought into this and focused on trying to do theright things in our own lives. Meanwhile, having deflected attention away from their own activities, the big polluters continued to churn out more and more plastic and extract more and more fossil fuels. And here we are today, with a global plastic pollution crisis and the prospect of imminent climate catastrophe.
I’ve never seen myself as a campaigner. But I do wish we’d been much more outspoken about period plastic (and all the other issues) back then. Because if we’ve learnt anything from the past 25 years, it’s that individual behaviour change and leaving things up to consumer pressure just isn’t enough to solve global environmental problems like plastic pollution. To achieve the scale of change we need in the few years we have left, we have to stop the big polluters from producing in a way that harms the environment. And that means we have to convince government to regulate them effectively.
Take the case of period plastic. More and more people are now switching to sustainable period products. But the numbers are still relatively low – it tends to be people who have the money to cover the higher upfront cost of reusable products and a lifestyle that allows them to even worry about such things. Moreover, changing individual behaviour is a hit-and-miss process that takes time, time we simply don’t have. The quickest and most widely effective solution would bea government ban on period plastic. Yet beyond a vague promise to look at restrictions on plastic tampon applicators “in due course”, our government has been largely silent on this issue. Is this because, even in 2021, people (not least male policy makers) are still too embarrassed to talk about periods? We can’t afford to keep making themistakes of the last 25 years. We need to be vocal about period plastic –yes, I said “PERIOD PLASTIC”! –, and we need to do it now.
Our Plastic-Free Fife network has chosen period plastic as one of its key campaign themes. We are urging the Scottish Government to ban the different elements of period plastic as an integral part of its period poverty strategy. We maintain that only reusable/plastic-free products should be made available through the period poverty scheme. This is already the case for free period products obtained online in Fife and some other regions, but should be extended to the whole of Scotland and to the free products provided in public places.Clearly, an awareness-raising campaign about alternative period products is also needed to ensure adequate take-up.
So what can you do? You can write toyour MSP and to Scottish Environment Minister, Mairi McAllan, urging them to take prompt action to tackle period plastic. Plastic-Free Fife has produced adocument summarising the main points, and can share it with you on request. And if you have contacts in a local school, it would be great if you could use them to promote our plastic-free period resource for teachers. We can share this with anyone interested, just message us on our Plastic-Free Dalgety Bay Facebook page. There are also all sorts of other ways you can engage as part of EnvironmenstrualWeek.
If I’m lucky enough to still be doing beach cleans in 25 years’ time, I know I’ll still be finding plastic tampon applicators – the ones that are out there already won’t have broken down by then. But I hope the young people doing the clean-up with me won’t know whatthey are, because they’ll never have seen them during their lifetime.
Plastic-Free Dalgety Bay and Plastic-Free Fife