The Fight For Plastic-Free Period Products

Images: Ella Daish

Thanks to her #EndPeriodPlastic campaign, Ella Daish has helped to convince Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Superdrug to remove the plastic from their own-brand sanitary products. Ella shares her story so far, and the little-known impacts of our periods on the environment. 

The plastic pollution conversation is dominated by items like bags, bottles and straws, but have you ever considered how much hidden plastic there is in most period products?

The shocking truth is that conventional menstrual pads are made of up to 90% plastic. Tampons may either contain polyester, or come with a shiny plastic applicators too. Produced in their billions and used for just four to eight hours before being thrown out, these mainstream period products take over 500 years to break down – causing a huge negative impact on the environment.

I have lost count of the photographs that people have sent me from across the world of period products polluting the environment. A report by the European Commission found that period products are the fifth most common item found on Europe’s beaches, while the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) reported they are in the top 20 most found items on US coastlines. 

Period products are unquestionably a huge global environmental problem. However, their plastic content is unnecessary and the environmental impacts avoidable, which is why in 2018 I launched the #EndPeriodPlastic campaign. It calls on manufacturers and supermarkets to remove plastic from their period products, as it is crucial that we eliminate it at source.

In the first year, decision makers didn’t take me very seriously; they probably thought that I would disappear with their long emails and excuses. Unfortunately for them, this wasn’t the case. Persistence and tireless campaigning, the increasing momentum and the help of thousands of people has paid off, taking the campaign to new heights. It has received overwhelmingly positive support across the globe, and has now reached over 207,000 signatures.

The movement is leading to significant changes in the period industry, with manufacturers and retailers coming to the table to openly engage and take on board the steps the campaign is calling on them to make. To date, it has resulted in UK retailers Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Superdrug removing plastic tampon applicators from their own-brand products. Half of those targeted by this campaign have now taken this step, a move collectively saving over 17 tons of plastic annually.

Prior to the petition there was limited choice. I remember going into my local supermarket to find eco-friendly alternatives, but there weren’t any; it was either plastic or plastic. Now thanks in part to the campaign, most stock a range of eco-friendly tampons and pads as well as reusables like menstrual cups. Lil-lets and Superdrug have responded to the campaign by developing their own eco-friendly ranges too. With steps like this being taken, it will make these options more visible and accessible to people.

Since I started the campaign, I have also become aware of just how many other issues there are surrounding menstruation. Due to the longstanding stigma around periods, both social and environmental issues on the subject often slip under the radar. Like many in the UK, when I received my very brief period education at primary school, my teacher told me to “use these when the time comes” whilst holding up branded product samples supplied by Tampax and Always.

One such question that has garnered my attention is period poverty. I am an advocate that no one should miss out on their education or be discriminated against because of their natural cycle, and it is fantastic that thanks to the hard work of individuals and groups like Amika George and The Red Box Project, governments in England, Scotland and Wales are making period products freely available at schools. 

It is the right thing to do, but we also need to consider the long-term environmental impacts of the products this much-needed funding is spent on. This is why in addition to the campaign I have been calling for governments to use all funding on eco-friendly products, so that we can tackle period poverty, the plastic crisis and protect the environment simultaneously. We know the impacts of plastic on the environment and that eco-friendly products are better for people and the planet, so why not take the opportunity to do the right thing for everyone?

This has been met with positivity by Welsh local authorities and in September 2019 Caerphilly Council was the first to commit to spending all their funding on eco-friendly products. Our meeting was serendipitous, Caerphilly Council already clearly cared about the environment. The unwavering enthusiasm and determination they displayed to spend their funding sustainably from our first meeting and throughout the entire process was inspiring. I am thrilled that more councils will be following in their progressive footsteps. 

It is fantastic that these important decisions are being made and I hope to see more positive changes happening soon in this industry. I continue to meet with supermarkets and manufacturers to discuss how they can make a difference and there will be more focused action happening in the future to put further pressure on those who continue to pump out plastic unnecessarily with no consideration of the impacts on the planet.

The campaign would not be what it is today without the incredible support that I have received from all those that have signed and get involved. I could not have hoped for a better response, this support and the touching words of encouragement from people and organisations continues to empower me to keep pushing forward.

You can take a stand with me and support the campaign by signing it, which will keep you regularly updated with the latest news and action that you can get involved in! In addition to this, starting conversations with those around you is an effective way of raising much-needed awareness.

See Venetia Falconer’s top tips on how to have a plastic-free period.

Thinking of starting your own campaign? Read Scarlett Curtis’ guide to online activism

Discover our favourite natural remedies for period pain