Are women destroying the planet?

Yes, if many of the ‘plastic-free periods’ campaigns are to be believed. The websites for these organisations are peppered with the kind of arresting statistics that can make the female reader feel guilty at best and shamed at worst. Each sanitary towel contains the equivalent of 4 plastic carrier bags! More than 4 million sanitary products are flushed down the toilet every day!! Most conventional sanitary products take hundreds of years to biodegrade!!! Women: the blood of the environment is on your hands.

And yet what these statistics disguise is that feminine hygiene products make up less than 1% of a woman’s personal landfill load over the course of her reproductive lifetime. To put things in perspective, over 65% of plastic food packaging in the UK goes to landfill or is incinerated – so as a percentage of domestic waste, sanitary products are far from the prime offender.

To be clear: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with choosing to use menstrual cups, reusable sanitary pads or organic cotton hygiene products. Clearly these products do much to help the environment. My objection is to the way in which plastic-free periods campaigns place the emphasis on products associated specifically with women, and then present plastic-free alternatives as the morally superior choice. My concern is that this may perpetuate a culture in which women are encouraged to feel guilty and ashamed about their personal decisions.

Let’s not forget that often these ‘choices’ say little about a woman’s personal preferences, and more about her economic circumstances. What many of these plastic-free periods initiatives overlook is that more environmentally-friendly products tend to presume a middle-class lifestyle. For example, while the manufacturers of products such as menstrual cups are keen to stress that these items will pay for themselves after 6 to 8 months, the reality is that many women will struggle to afford the initial outlay – to say nothing of the fact that for those living in shared accommodation it may be difficult to find an opportunity to sterilise their cup in privacy. Reusable sanitary pads also come with an increased amount of labour compared to disposables: when you’re already struggling to keep up with the laundry on top of full-time employment and childcare, then factoring in several separate loads of soiled pads may be a thing too far.

Moreover, focussing on the environmental footprint of a product that is used exclusively by women feeds into a wider cultural trend in which the fate of the planet is presented as somehow tied up in women’s actions. An increasing number of environmental initiatives and blogs, many of which are owned and managed by women, present caring about the environment as something that women are uniquely fitted to do. Alright, so women make 85% of the consumer decisions that affect the household’s carbon footprint? Then why don’t we challenge this statistic as a depressing indication of continued gender imbalance, rather than deploy it as a motivational tool for women to assume responsibility for getting everyone’s environmental house in order? The idea that women are best equipped to safeguard the environmental health of the planet seems like little more than a reworking of the Victorian ideal that it should fall to women to uphold the moral health of the nation. On International Women’s Day 2019 we must ask ourselves: shouldn’t we have come farther than this?