Toxic Garbage Island
“Beat Plastic Pollution” – this is the theme for World Environment Day 2018, hosted by India, and it is as great a place to start as any to take action against one of the great environmental challenges of our time. If fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emission are the “silent killers”, plastic pollution is a bully that proudly stands up in the middle of a proverbial playground with his feet planted firmly on the windpipe of another poor kid. If that analogy sounds a bit “out there”, one only has to take a cruise to the “great Pacific garbage patch,” to see the very real and choking effect that plastic has on the environment and the many lifeforms that inhabits it.
There are far too many single-use and disposable plastic being both produced and disposed every year. Approximately 50% of the plastic products we use is single use, with most of them being unsustainably disposed, leaking into our oceans. This statement often evokes gut-wrenching images of oceanic creatures riddled with plastic wastes, yet the immediate impact of plastic pollution can be readily observed right at our front door, in our clogged city drains.
As mentioned earlier, plastic pollution is due mainly to single-use of plastic products, and a large proportion of female hygiene products also contribute to this. While the exact plastic contents of menstrual products are unknown and may vary according to brands, we know that the most popular product around the world – the sanitary pad – can contain up to 90% plastic. An average woman may use up to 10,000 of these products in her lifetime. Most of the menstrual waste end up in landfills.
In India, menstrual waste has become a serious problem that the government came out with the new Solid Waste Management (SWM) rules in 2016 – making a pouch or wrapper for safe disposal of menstrual products obligatory. The United Kingdom faces much of the same problem, with menstrual waste being found on British beaches along with other sewage-related debris. This prompted the City to Sea to start a #PlasticFreePeriod campaign.
Much of the problem with menstrual waste lies in the method of disposal. Many women either throw them in garbage bins mixed with other hazardous waste or flushing them down. In the first instance, exposed sanitary napkins become a great health risk to waste collectors. In the second, the flushed menstrual waste clogs waterways, which becomes an extra expenditure for water companies. In both instances, toxic chemicals leach into the soil and subsequently into water sources, whereas the solid wastes end up in landfills where it will more than likely be burned, further contributing to other forms of pollutions.
We highlighted the interlinkages between climate change and women’s health, and how extreme climate change events disproportionately affects women, regardless of age. Climate change exacerbates the existing inequalities and vulnerabilities faced by women; yet, women are not merely victims in this narrative. Women are in fact agents of change, with the capacity and resourcefulness to collectively address climate change. But given the amounts of plastic women use from just menstrual hygiene products alone, what can we do to improve the situation?
The Plasticity of Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)
“If you can’t reuse it, refuse it” is another phrase being popularised by India for this year’s World Environment Day. Women and women’s groups have been advocating for environmentally friendlier options when it comes to menstrual hygiene products. For example, menstrual cups have been gaining traction in mainstream media thanks to the efforts of people like Kim Rosas and Amanda Hearn from YouTube channel Put A Cup In It:
Or Komal Khulbe, a fashion blogger from India:
Reusable cloth pad is another option, and for those of us using tampons, instead of the disposable plastic applicator, there exists reusable ones that will last for quite some time.
But these alternative products will not solve all the problems. The lack of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) among women and girls in developing countries or at least developed countries means that many have reservations about these products as compared to the traditional methods they are used to. After all, how can one educate women and girls on the proper application of menstrual cups when they are not even aware of their own anatomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)? Existing social taboos surrounding the subject of menstruation is making it hard enough for women to discuss their menstrual health and hygiene openly, let alone linking it to the greater discourse on reproductive health and climate change.
World Environment Day – Is there an accountable party in the house?
When it comes to tackling the issue of climate change and plastic pollution, it goes without saying that every individual on this planet is accountable. The mantra of 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) will alleviate some of the stress that we are exerting on the environment, especially when it comes to plastic pollution. Reducing demand for plastic has a cascading effect that most people are not aware of, especially since a large portion of plastic products come from non-renewable petroleum-based fossil fuels; Reusing plastic products reduces the accumulation of non-biodegradable waste in landfills and also in the ocean. Recycling feeds into both of the points above.
Yet while women continue to be agents of change in the greater fight against climate change, we must also hold governing bodies accountable to a greater degree. For women and girls who have little choice in the menstrual products they use (e.g. due to socio-economic factors, women in humanitarian setting, or for displaced women and girls due to climate change disasters or conflict), menstrual hygiene within the greater context of their SRHR remains a challenge that they have to contend with every single day. Something also needs to be said about the taxation of these products, with price ranges that makes it somewhat of a luxury for women in under-developed countries where most women live below the poverty line. Finally – perhaps most crucially – the lack of CSE in many parts of the world restricts discourses of menstrual hygiene and women’s and girls’ health to the private sphere, rife with circulating myths and misinformation, like so many microplastic particles in our waters – and subsequently in our body – today.
Bagus Sosroseno, with inputs from Hwei Mian Lim, ARROW
Let us do our part to #BeatPlasticPollution! Visit the official World Environment Day website to find out more about initatives happening around the world and to get involved, and remember that if you can’t reuse it, refuse it!