Hearing From our Fellows: Megan Douglas
Environ-menstrual: Periods and Plastic Waste
Amazing how I still recoil at the thought of menstruation. I was raised in a fairly conservativehome where a visit from ‘Aunt Flo’ was just not something you discussed. Ever. Period. I called pads and tampons ‘unmentionables’. Whispered it like a wizard mouths the name of the Dark Lord.
As absurd as it may seem, my aversion to menstrual products is not too far from how periods are still treated by wider society. In commercials, blood is a blue liquid poured out of a glass beaker, as if advertising sanitary napkins for Smurfs. In bars, girls trade tampons under tables as ifmaking an illicit drug trade. Despite the all the discretion surrounding menstruation, every year our tampon applicators and pads show up in dumps, clog the plumbing and wash up on the beach for some unassuming five-year-old to artfully incorporate them into a sandcastle drawbridge #truestory. I suggest that all of our awkward tip-toeing around what goes on Down South fuels the disposability of non-disposable period products, and the resulting plastic waste left behind.
I am writing this post as part of Invisible Dust’s Under Her Eye fellowship, which I am participating in as a first year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh in the International Development program. I am privileged to be able to participate in the fellowship on the recommendation of my supervisor, Dr. Jamie Cross, and generous funding by the LeverhulmeTrust. The fellowship appeals to me because of its unique offering of a female-driven interdisciplinary approach to creatively tackling climate change, and the opportunity to grow my network with ambitious female artists and scientists from across the UK.
For this blog post, I started with a quick Google search. The phrase ‘menstrual waste’ offereddozens of articles chronicling the severity of the problem: one site claims that in the UK alone, a woman disposes of more than 11,000 sanitary products in her lifetime, contributing to 200,000 tonnes of period-related plastic waste per year.
I must make the disclaimer that the disposing of period plastics is largely a Western upper/middle class concern. Pads are unaffordable and/or un–accessible for many people around the world andusing insertable devices like tampons and menstrual cups are predominantly a Western practice. Our response to ‘period poverty’ should not be to make plastic tampons and pads more readily available. Nor should we refrain from reconsidering our own part in contributing to the mounting challenge of plastic waste.
Like bags and straws, our bloody pads and used tampon applicators do not vanish into thin air, to be magically teleported out into the menstrual cosmos. Our un-disposable disposables always continue to exist elsewhere. Timothy Morton in his book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World talks about mind-blowingly huge entities transcending space and time, such as nuclear bombs, global warming, and Styrofoam. Similarly, our menstrual products exist beyond localized time and space; the whole world has become the garbage pail into which we throw our bloodied pads and the toilet through which we flush our tampons. Morton claims that to understand hyperobjects we need to change the way we view the universe and our interactions with it. For an art approach to this check out the group exhibition Hyperobjects, co-organized by Morton and Ballroom Marfa Director and Curator Laura Copelin, open now until October 14, 2018. As Morton points out, “ecological awareness just means that things happen on a bewildering variety of scales all at once”, so while we consider the tampon’s place in the universe, let’s also bring our attention down to the personal/social level.
In her work Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, anthropologist Mary Douglas writes about how if we are to see the human body as a symbol of society, we may interpret interactions with bodily fluids, like blood, as representative of social boundaries. As it currently stands, having ones’ period is a business of management; first containment, then disposal. Disposable products, like pads and tampons, allow us to manage our bodies and their outputs in a way acceptable to governing social structures. This implies that the while our blood stays within acceptable boundaries, this process is enabled by plastic products that, according to Morton, inevitably cross spatial and temporal boundaries.
Menstrual pads are 90% plastic and equivalent to four plastic bags. So if our period products create so much plastic waste, and we know plastic is bad for the earth, why have they not joined the ban list of other single-use disposable products, along with drinking straws or plastic bags? Some progress towards minimizing period waste has been made. Most drug stores now carry tampons with cardboard applicators, as well as applicator-free tampons (though these still come wrapped in plastic). Eliminating the need for pads or tampons altogether, period-proof clothing, like online retailer Thinx, are beginning to catch on, despite causing a stir in Manhattan this past year from their subway advertisements that dared to include the word ‘period’. Menstrual cups, like Mooncup, though not a new invention (commercial menstrual cups have been around since the 1930s), reduce waste altogether and can be reused for up to 10 years.
Though more cost-effective and less wasteful, menstrual cups are far from being mainstream. In the US, 98% of women use either pads, tampons or a combination of the two, compared to just 2-3% who use a menstrual cup. The slow adoption rate could be related to a number of factors, including the difficulty of changing habits, fears around spillage, and the fact that drug stores are less incentivized to keep them stocked or advertised as their reusability means fewer purchases each month.
I believe it is also largely due to the ‘ick factor’. Menstrual cups require you to put your hand inside your body and pour out your blood after each use (talk about crossing boundaries). Did your nose just wrinkle a bit? You’re not alone. But it’s important to think about why we’re so revolted by close interactions with our bodies in this manner. Think about what other bodily fluids we casually handle on a nearly daily basis; we blow our noses, clean out our ears, breastfeed our babies, and spit into the sink. Author Germaine Greer in her book The Female Eunuch challenges us to consider why we see our vaginas and menstrual blood as unique. Why, for example, do we not hesitate to suck on our finger if we prick it and see blood, yet recoil at the thought of handling period blood?
Here is my challenge for all of us (not just those of us with a vagina): to tackle the problem of menstrual plastic waste, we must first confront our issues with the female body. This is perhaps a humbling issue for feminists- anxieties and disgust surrounding menstruation is a challenge that we continue to battle and have a hand in perpetuating. This is an issue within the female collective yet must involve a culture shift among all of us, so all must be invited into this discussion to confront the deeper issues at hand. Until we do, commercial blood will be blue, menstrual blood will be icky, and tampon applicators will wash up on beaches.
Megan Douglas is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on markets and energy access among forcibly displaced women in Eastern Africa.