Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Environmental Concern We Are Afraid to Talk About: Period.

By Kelsey CloughPublished November 6, 2014

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Approximately half of Earth's inhabitants are female, of which an estimated 56% are of reproductive age and menstruate monthly. Yet, in societies throughout the world the topic is taboo. Consequently, inattentiveness to menstrual hygiene management significantly impacts the environment.
By Kelsey Clough, 11/6/14

I want to talk about periods. Approximately half of Earth's inhabitants are female, of which an estimated 56% are of reproductive age and menstruate monthly ("Menstrual Hygiene Management"). Yet, in societies throughout the world the topic is taboo. Some cultures, for example, adhere to traditions or religious practices that ostracize menstruating women. On the other hand, places like the United States, altogether silence conversation on this natural female process. These negative attitudes result in the shaming of menstruation, and, more generally, of women; menstruation is interpreted as dirty and impure. Furthermore, political, social, and economic concerns, with respect to menstruation, rarely, if ever, enter the discussion of policymakers. While inattentiveness to menstrual hygiene management jeopardizes a multitude of human rights, it also significantly impacts the environment.

Feminine products considerably contribute to the global waste stream. In the US alone, over 12 billion disposable feminine products are thrown away annually ("Hidden Paper Waste: Alternative Feminine Hygiene Products"). From a different perspective, an average woman throws away approximately 125 to 150 kilograms of tampons, pads, and applicators in her lifetime ("Menstrual Hygiene and Management in Developing Countries: Taking Stock" [print]). Feminine products, which are often disposed of in trash receptacles and toilets, eventually accumulate in landfills, disrupt septic systems and infiltrate water systems. Women who utilize cloth as hygiene products may burn their menstruation waste for disposal, which pollutes the air. Public receptacles for feminine products are basically nonexistent, as a result of the stigma surrounding menstruation.

Improper disposal of menstruation waste poses a large environmental threat, but the lack of affordable and sustainable feminine products forms the foundation of these concerns. Although reusable and biodegradable feminine products exist, the items' procurement proves difficult and expensive for many women. For example, reusable menstrual cups, composed of silicone, retail for around $40. A Kickstarter campaign for a specific menstrual cup, the Lily Cup, however, which is seeking investors to advertise in the corporate dominated industry, prove these products are not the norm. Research and development on environmentally-friendly products for this natural bodily process is woefully insufficient.

For impoverished women in developing countries, menstruation hygiene management and environmental concerns extend beyond products and their disposal; limited access to clean water negatively affects women. Throughout developing nations, the procurement of sterile water remains a basic, but severe, problem. Inadequate access to sanitary water, as a result of polluted water supplies or lack of infrastructure, impedes crop harvest and harms animal populations. With only limited resource, water must be reserved for human necessities, such as drinking and preparation of food. Thus, bathing, an imperative for the health and hygiene of menstruating women, remains a luxury.

Women without access to proper menstrual hygiene management experience difficulties in keeping up with their peers. Girls without feminine products or clean water to bathe will often miss school to avoid embarrassment or shame. Similarly, working women with the same problem skip workdays. Until menstrual hygiene management is addressed worldwide, educational and professional inequality for women will persist, thereby preventing success. With much of the global population stigmatized for menstruation and lacking access to proper education, the pool of potential environmental experts diminishes significantly. Perhaps, we have yet to solve so many international environmental quandaries because inequality in education for females, in part from the taboo of menstruation, still exists so rampantly.

Ultimately, the multi-faceted problem of menstruation shame extends far beyond environmental concerns. Political, economic, and social initiatives need to be enacted to help mitigate the international deficit in menstrual hygiene management. For example, in the United States, disposable or biodegradable feminine products should be subsidized for indigenous women. Whether enacted through the food stamp program or through federal healthcare, the distribution of environmentally-friendly feminine products would alleviate environmental and social concerns. Before these endeavors can succeed, however, society has to be conditioned to understand the normalcy of menstruation and remove its impure stigma. This will allow policymakers to develop the necessary empathy to truly address the environmental consequences of women's health.