Going against the flow: Making sustainable period products the norm
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The Sustainable Period Project educates young women to make informed, sustainable and comfortable menstrual choices.

Going against the flow: Making sustainable period products the norm

by Caitlyn Watts See Profile
Melbourne VIC, Australia
19th Dec 2018
Going against the flow: Making sustainable period products the norm

I’m sure you can remember your first period. Some may describe it as the glorious moment of transition from girlhood to womanhood. For others, like myself, it’s an embarrassing tale they’d rather forget. There was little glory to be found in the moment I stood up to exit the assembly hall at my primary school graduation and felt a strange, uncontrollable dampness. When I discovered the worst, I was too afraid to tell my family and friends, who were devouring the graduation cake in the classroom next door as I remembered the uncomfortable giggles during health class that resonated through those four walls a few weeks prior.

“This is a pad. This is a tampon”, the teacher described.

In my seven years of menstruating, it’s estimated that I’ve used around 1000 pads. On average, every user of disposable period products throws away one shopping bag worth of plastics, wrappers and products per period cycle, as over 1 billion pads and 700 million tampons enter landfill in Australia and New Zealand every year. Conventional pads are made of 90% plastic polymers, meaning it takes around 300 years to break down in landfill. While tampons have a much shorter decomposing rate— anywhere between 6 months and 5 years— their packaging and applicators mean that they take just as long as pads. The issue of wastage and responsible disposal hovers menacingly over our world today. According to the Education for Sustainability and the Australian Curriculum Project, the accessibility of high quality, classroom-ready resources and teacher training was severely lacking, and the Australian school curriculum is now making it a priority to implement an element of sustainability education into each subject.

Elizabeth Chapman, co-founder of the Sustainable Period Project and Operations Manager at Lunette Australia, says she received many emails from teachers asking for samples of sustainable period products to show their students.

“A lot of teachers don’t even know what menstrual cups are or what sustainable period products are, let alone the students,” she said.

“We found a study which shows that one of the biggest problems for teachers in teaching about sustainability was the lack of resources being made available.”

Together with her two sisters, who share a background in the health professions, Elizabeth founded the Sustainable Period Project in 2016 and has since distributed around 1000 educational kits across Australia and New Zealand. The kits feature samples of menstrual cups, period underwear and cloth pads, as well as biodegradable pads and tampons for teachers to show their students during classes. The Sustainable Period Project produces learning resources for teachers, including PowerPoint presentations and quizzes, to help make it as simple as possible for teachers to incorporate sustainability education into their lessons.

Murdoch’s Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy lecturer, Dr Sally Paulin says integrating sustainability into existing school subjects, rather than as a stand-alone subject, helps embed sustainable practices into everyday life.

“It’s about how you incorporate sustainable ideas and concepts through all teachings so that it just becomes a natural thing,” she said.

As a largely taboo and hidden part of life, it’s no wonder there aren’t more resources available for teachers on menstruation and menstrual products. Introducing the concept of periods can be awkward, for both teachers and students, with many preferring discretion over candid discussion. Despite being a vital part of the human life cycle, we discuss periods in a guarded way, as if we should be ashamed of them. This has many negative flow-on effects, one of which is women accepting the products they are exposed to early on in life as the only ones available to them. When researching for The Project, Elizabeth found a certain loyalty among women to their preferred menstrual product— most women continue to use the ones that they first encounter, for life.

Nagle Catholic College Secondary teacher, Stephanie Cremin, has taught The Sustainable Period Project as part of the senior level Children, Family and Community course. She showed her students the different menstrual options available and analysed the pros and cons of each product. Sustainable period products don’t just help the environment, they can also help women feel confident, comfortable and in control of their bodies.

“I introduced it as part of the syllabus itself, first by looking at ways families can live more sustainably. Then, we looked at it as a women’s issue,” she said.

“Previously, with sex-ed, it’s all been about pads and tampons and that’s it – case shut, off you go. This is different because there are all these products out there that make life so much simpler.”

As a women living with endometriosis and ovarian cysts herself, Stephanie knows just how important it is for young women to learn how to be in touch with their body and their cycle. She wishes she was exposed to these types of products when she was a teenager, and has made it her mission to pass on the important message to young women.

“It is quite daunting for a young girl to start with, and so just getting them to even consider something else other than tampons was tough. But the more we considered it and had conversations, they started to become more open to ideas.”

Encouraging more of these discussions amongst communities is Maxine Petty, shop manager of Environment House in Bayswater. Maxine noticed women were hesitant to buy alternative menstrual products without touching them first, or knowing someone’s who had tried them. After a successful Women’s Shopping Evening saw over 40 women see the Sustainable Period Kit and walk out with a product they’d never used before, Maxine hopes to continue to draw people to Environment House and spread awareness amongst the community.

“I think we’ve probably sold to close 600 pairs of underwear,” she said.

Maxine said cost was another factor that drew women towards reusable sanitary products. With the Tampon Tax being a topic of debate spanning nearly two decades in Australia, it is interesting to wonder why people don’t further question the price of period products. If you buy a $10 pack of tampons every month, that’s $120 a year, or $1200 a decade. It ends up tallying around $5600 over the course of your menstruating life. Instead, you can buy a $30 pair of underwear or a $50 menstrual cup and reuse it for years.

When interviewing all of these women and hearing them reflect on sustainable menstrual products, they all asked themselves the same question:

“Why didn’t I know about this earlier?”

It’s a question I too ask myself. If only my teachers had informed me about my options, I could have saved years of discomfort, embarrassing leaks and environmental destruction. I was told in that classroom that pads and tampons were my only options, and I had no reason to believe otherwise.

It’s unfathomable that a function necessary for life is so stigmatised. Why are we only being taught about pads and tampons in school? Why are we encouraged to use products that destroy our planet, pose health risks, cost plenty and leak?

From a young age, women need to be educated about all menstrual products available to them and The Sustainable Period Project seeks to fill this gap, by providing a holistic education around menstruation. Elizabeth hopes it will empower women to make informed choices about what’s best for them, their body and the world around them.

By 2020, The Sustainable Period Project hopes to have distributed kits to all secondary schools across Australia and New Zealand. If you would like to order a kit for your educational institution, visit https://sustainableperiodproject.org/resource-kit/.

Visit the Sustainable Period Project.

Sustainable Period Project
Caitlyn Watts

About Caitlyn Watts

Caitlyn Watts is currently based in Perth and writes on a freelance basis while completing her studies in Journalism and Professional Writing and Publishing. Her favourite topics to explore include travel, culture and food. Caitlyn hopes her writing and journalism will help to start conversations within the community and shed light on lesser known issues.

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Melbourne VIC, Australia
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