Fighting global plastic pollution: What difference can women make?

Fighting global plastic pollution: What difference can women make?


by Olga Speranskaya

The first thing I saw while doing my early morning jogging on the beach of the gorgeous Issyk-Kul Lake was plastic bottles and used women’s hygienic pads. Located in the northern Tian Shan mountains, Issyk-Kul is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan. It is an amazingly beautiful lake with slightly salted clean water that never freezes. Being known for its many resorts, spas, and tourist sights, Issyk-Kul nevertheless suffers from plastic pollution. Plastics contaminate beaches, deep waters and the bottom of the lake. Plastic waste enters the lake from the land sources as well it gets carried through 118 rivers and streams that flow into the lake. Issyk-Kul has no current outlet, thus what comes into the lake stays there.

In August 2018 a draft law “On the ban of import, production, sale and use of plastic bags and plastic containers within the territory of Issyk-Kul biosphere zone” was submitted for public consultations in Kyrgyzstan. The Law is aimed at banning the import, production, sale and use of plastic bags and plastic bottles starting 2020.

Though, this is an important step forward to protect Issyk-Kul, it will not address the issue of used personal hygienic products (Pads, wipes, tampons, applicators and others) getting into the lake.  In reality, women’s hygienic products are among the most common garbage found on the beach. This is not a surprise.

The average woman will use 12,000 to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products in her lifetime. According to City to Sea UK, “Every single day in the UK about 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million pads are flushed down the toilet – many of which block our sewer systems and escape into rivers and seas”. Unfortunately, this is just an example of the situation in the UK only.

Noting that early puberty is becoming more frequent in our days, the use of feminine hygiene products will be skyrocketing in the near future. Thus, during a woman’s fertile years, period-related garbage makes about 0.5% of her “personal landfill load”. This is comparable to the percentage of the annual trash made out of plastic plates and cup.

Conventional hygienic products, even if they stay in the water or under the sun for long do not look rotten largely because they are made from up to 90% crude oil-sourced plastic. It can take up to 100 years or more for something like a plastic pad or an applicator to break down.

If a plastic bottle or a plastic container can be recycled, hygienic products are considered to be a single-use, non-value plastic products which are subject to quick disposal. They end up in incinerators, in landfills, on illegal dumping grounds, in water sources, seas and oceans. They can not be composted or reused into new products. Waste pickers avoid picking this type of garbage as it is disgusting and of no use for them.

The multi-billion-dollar industry that manufactures feminine and other hygienic products, profits from the dominance of disposable products. In many countries, both in developing and developed ones, the feminine hygiene industry has successfully convinced women that their period is something which should be kept hidden and related hygienic products should be quickly disposed of. They have succeeded in making consumers believe that disposables are not only the most convenient and affordable option, but also have no health or environmental risks. However, this is not true.

Women use different personal hygienic products such as creams, sprays, wipes, pads, tampons. Young teenage girls often use some personal care products on a daily basis thus permanently exposing themselves to a variety of toxic chemicals. Environmental Working Group (EWG) detected 16 chemicals from 4 chemical families – phthalates, triclosan, parabens – in blood and urine samples from 20 teen girls aged 14-19.

These and other chemicals are commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products causing serious and sometimes irreversible health damage. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as BPA and BPS are indicated in the majority of tested personal care products and are linked to numerous diseases. They cause cancer, mutations, neurological disorders, infertility, diabetes, obesity. Chlorine bleach that makes hygienic products look white can create dioxin which is a persistent organic pollutant and is linked to cancer and reproductive disorders.

Fragrances in hygienic and personal care products often contain undisclosed chemicals of unknown toxicity. Chemicals in fragrances are linked to allergies, cancer and endocrine disruption. A wide range of hazardous pesticides, including organochlorine pesticides and glyphosate was found in tampons and pads.

Sometimes it is hard to determine a direct health effect or acute poisoning from toxic chemicals in hygienic products or cosmetics. However severe health consequences happened as a result of toxic chemicals in personal care products could become obvious after many years. Even small doses of some chemicals such as endocrine disruptors (EDCs) could be really dangerous “because EDCs can have effects at low doses that are not predicted by effects at higher doses”.

Though there is a growing body of evidence confirming the presence of toxic chemicals in feminine hygiene products, manufacturing companies are not legally required to disclose all of the ingredients in their products because of the gaps in the national regulations and related international instruments. According to the report released by Women’s Voices for the Earth in 2018, laboratory analysis of six popular brands of U.S. tampons identified chemicals of concern in the majority of samples tested. For example, carbon disulfide was found in all tampons that contain rayon. This chemical is associated with increased risk of menstrual disorders, early menopause and hormonal disturbances in female workers in rayon manufacturing plants.

In addition to carbon disulfide other toxic substances, including  methylene chloride, methyl ethyl ketone, ethyl acetate, m,p-xylene, heptane, hexane, toluene were detected in the testing. However neither of them was mentioned on the list of product ingredients which clearly highlights the need for better ingredient disclosure in feminine hygienic products. Lack of clear labeling on disposable products and the potential for cumulative exposure to harmful chemicals is a troubling situation since feminine hygiene products are used by women on a monthly basis.

It is important to change corporate behavior, including highlighting better alternatives for personal hygienic products. Changing the dominant narrative of stinky menstruation is key to both empower women living better with plastic- and toxic-free alternatives and clean the environment from single-use non-value plastic products. By going plastic free period, women will significantly contribute to both, overall reduction of plastic production and plastic waste.


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Written by olgaalex