Plastic Free Cycles

The Trinity team tackling microplastics in period products

Blame it on our upbringing, media exposure, or the stigma hanging over open menstruation discourse, but people who menstruate often don’t think twice about the products they use. You buy one box of Tampax and you’re committed for life. Single-use period products have become so ubiquitous that they’ve become the de facto “cleanest”, “normalest”, “best” option out there to deal with the monthly flow. But with more alternatives coming on the market and challenging the position of single-use pads and tampons, maybe it’s worth giving a second thought to the impact these products are having on our bodies and our environment.  This is the message of Plastic Free Cycles, a team of three final year Trinity students looking to tackle one of the most overlooked issues facing people that face people that menstruate: microplastics in period products.

Microplastics is one of the latest environmental buzzwords — and for good reason. These little bits of plastic are all around us. The term was first coined by marine scientist Richard Thompson in 2004 to describe rice-sized chunks of plastic he found on English beaches. Since then, these tiny plastic fibres (less than 5 millimetres across) have been found in our oceans, our food, our blood, and even the air that we breathe. The more we look, the more we find. Numerous studies are emerging of microplastics found in the furthest reaches of our planet and in our bodies themselves, sounding alarm bells as concerns grow for the impact of these fibres on human health and our ecosystem. It’ll take a mammoth societal shift to help reign in the issue of microplastics, but there are small steps we can take to limit the impact they have on our bodies, and help reduce our contribution to microplastic pollution in our environment. Plastic Free Cycles believe in tackling this through tighter regulation and transparency around the ingredients of period products, and through raising awareness of this little known problem that could have potentially serious impacts.

Disposable products

It has been reported that the average person who menstruates will use 11,000 disposable products in their lifetime. Perhaps harmless at first glance, the environmental danger posed by this statistic increases upon understanding that 700,000 such disposables end up in Irish landfills every year – that is, the equivalent of 2,800,000 plastic bags, or 6.58e12 nanoplastic fibres. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that a non-organic tampon generally takes 600 years to disintegrate. In fact, toxic residues (such as pesticides and plastics) have been found in single-use disposable period pads, tampons, and reusables. Besides the evident environmental impact, the damage extends to marine and land life when disposed of in sewage and elsewhere. Recognising this, in 2018 the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) launched their Environmenstrual Campaign and Coalition initiative. At its core, it seeks to provide the English government with evidence on the environmental impacts of disposable menstrual products, and to promote alternatives to single-use disposables. The need for such an initiative is compounded by the lack of regulation on the matter, as well as the increased demand for safer reusables.  Inspired in part by this laudable notion of using health as a way to look at environmental justice, Sabrina, Carlotta, and Shahina – as part of their final-year Capstone project – analysed disproportionate access to information regarding the sustainability of menstrual products. Their research on menstruation concludes that decent menstrual products should be “a right, not a privilege”. 

Lack of awareness

Talking to Sabrina, we were told that she worked with the Women’s Council of Ireland. She recounts the origins of the project thus: “I had a talk with a … law professor, and he told me that in Ireland a few years back, there was a crisis where microplastics were found in babies’ nappies … I’m part of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and we do different events, looking at women’s health, et cetera, and I was like, ‘Oh, it might be interesting to look at the microplastics in period products’.”

After having conducted a survey among their classmates, Sabrina, Carlotta, and Shahina came to understand that over 78% of those surveyed did not know of the usage of microplastics in period products – a concerning statistic indeed. The lack of awareness among students shed light on the startling repercussions stemming from the lack of regulations around period products. At present, producers are not obligated to list potential harms or product ingredients on packaging, as mandated in comparable laws governing medical devices or cosmetics. The lack of transparency allows period product providers to evade any responsibility to improve product quality or production procedures, and enables them to put products on the market which may contain harmful chemicals released during production. Sabrina highlights the discrepancy in regulation as one of the most surprising finds of their investigation: “There’s no legal regulations or laws … There’s [sic] ingredients [listed] in chocolate bars, but why is there nothing in plastic period products?”

Their survey also found that over 65% of those who regularly use period products use at least one non-organic, disposable option. Carlota expressed her surprise at the high proportion of respondents that hadn’t adopted more environmentally friendly alternatives: “Most of the people that we’ve talked to, they use non-organic pads and tampons, and I feel like that really surprised me because there’s obviously so many alternatives.” The results of their survey indicate much of this can be attributed to financial cost, even if the longevity of most sustainable options makes the more immediately affordable disposable options something of a false economy. However, the team acknowledges that the compromise between economic feasibility and a desire for more sustainable alternatives is a legitimate challenge for consumers, complicated further by ambiguity over what is sustainable versus what isn’t, as well as a societal preference for more ubiquitous disposable products. Citing an internalised stigma around reusable period products and a lack of education contributing to sanitary concerns, Carlota says, “I think it’s more of like a mental thing.” She continues:  “Like, ‘oh, I don’t want to carry a [reusable] pad that I’ve just used in my bag’, or with the cup … you have to take it out and clean it.” Sabrina agrees, noting that convenience was also a contributing factor in the decision to stick with disposable methods: “I think it’s also convenience. [You can] definitely find Always and Tampax in supermarkets, but for other products, you’d have to go into a … special store.”

Filling the knowledge gap

Faced with a complex myriad of issues, Plastic Free Cycles identified two central actions to address the environmental impact and health risks associated with using disposable period products. First, by organising interactive workshops and online sessions, they hope to educate people of all genders on the impact of microplastics in period products on the environment and on human health. Last month, they teamed up with the Women’s Environmental Network and the DU Gender Equality Society to deliver an educational workshop (an event shortlisted for the CSC’s Sustainability Award), and provided a talk to all Welfare Officers in higher level education institutions in Ireland to shine a light on the issue of microplastics in period products. More recently, the group joined forces with EnviroSoc to provide a “Make Your Own Period Product” workshop to mark Trinity Sustainability Week. They hope to host a number of information sessions, coffee hours, and guest speakers later this semester to further help raise awareness on campus and beyond.

Additionally, the group is proposing the introduction of stickers onto period products, signposting those that do not contain microplastics.  “Our sticker proposal is essentially to put stickers on big brands … which show that there are no microplastics found in these period products,” Sabrina explains. They intend to pitch the stickers to commercial brands to help ensure greater transparency in the period product market and remove much of the complexity associated with assessing various period product options for consumers. 

Plastic Free Cycles believe that by raising awareness of this relatively unknown issue, they can help initiate a societal shift towards more sustainable options. “I think if people found out that the stuff they’re using does have microplastics and all that stuff, maybe they’ll be willing to change,” Carlotta says. Sabrina agrees, citing her own lack of knowledge around microplastics in period products before beginning the project: “I think even when we came across it … I wouldn’t even think that there are microplastics in period products, even though I know they’re made out of plastic, but you just don’t really think about it because you’ve just accepted it.” So, maybe worth looking into making the switch after all – your body and your planet might just thank you.

You can follow Plastic Free Cycles on Instagram @plasticfreecycles

Sadbh Boylan

Sadbh Boylan is the Deputy Scitech Editor for Trinity News and is currently in her Senior Sophister Year studying Management Science and Information System Studies

Sébastien Laymond

Sébastien Laymond is the Editor of the 'SciTech' column for Trinity News, and is currently in his Junior Sophister Year reading law.