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Why do we flush our period products? How period taboos are harming the planet

It’s estimated that 1.5 billion period products are flushed down the toilet every year here in the UK. In fact, research by FabLittleBag and Anglian Water found that 62% of women flushed their tampons. And that’s before we begin looking into pads and panty liners!

You probably had one of two reactions to those stats. You either internally screamed, like everyone here at Team Fempowered. Or you didn’t really see what the big deal is. Why does it matter if someone chooses to flush their period products, after all?

Why is flushing an issue?

Most disposable period items aren’t actually biodegradable (even organic cotton ones), nor do they disintegrate in the way that toilet paper does when in water. Instead, they’re specifically designed to hold liquid, without falling to pieces.

Whilst this means they’re great at doing their job and soaking up period blood, it does also mean they can stick around for months, or even years, after being flushed. Many products and their packaging also contain quite a bit of plastic, which as we know doesn’t go anywhere fast. This can wreak absolute havoc in our sewage systems, many of which feature pipes dating back to Victorian times!

Water UK report there are around 300,000 sewer blockages every year, mostly caused by people flushing things that they shouldn’t. Thames Water reports that blockages cause around 7,000 homes and gardens to flood every year. Yep, you heard that right: 7,000 floods. Every. Year.

However, the problem doesn’t stop there. Period products also make up a worrying proportion of the plastic pollution in our oceans and on our beaches. Friends of the Earth reveal that for every 100 metres of beach, 4 period products are found. Not only is that enough to put a dampener on any summer day, but it’s also damaging underwater wildlife and the delicate balance of the ocean.

Why do people flush period products?

Knowing the mayhem that flushing period products can cause, it’s important to understand why we continue to do so here in the UK. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s got a lot to do with period taboos!

Reason 1: Lack of education

Disposal information on the packaging of these items is rarely clear, instead often hidden on the underside of boxes. Plus, thanks to menstruation taboos, information about binning instead of flushing in public toilets often uses “discrete” language. As Kate Blincoe highlights, terms like “bathroom items” are common but extremely vague. She notes that “this coy use of terminology instead of referring to tampons and sanitary pads by their names can be easily misinterpreted”.

At Fempowered, we believe that we need to be more open and frank about menstruation, and this is just another example of why that’s so important. Anglian Water found that nearly half of women (41%) flush tampons down the loo without realising the damage it has on the environment.

Reason 2: Lack of facilities

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Stuck in a public toilet/workplace/friend’s house that doesn’t have a bin! It’s such a pain.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where period practicality still isn’t front of mind. That means offices, homes and public restrooms can too often be without the necessary amenities to help us handle our periods with dignity. Faced with little option, sometimes we gotta' flush.

This goes some way to explaining why 38% of women are more likely to flush a tampon when away from their home.

Reason 3: Embarrassment

Here at Fempowered, we’ve seen the huge negative impact that period taboos can have on people in the UK and across the globe. Unfortunately, bleeding is still seen as a reason for shame and embarrassment, or as a sign of weakness. 73% of women hide their period products when they go to the bathroom. And it doesn’t stop there.

Years of exposure to these societal norms means that many are reluctant to admit when they are on their period. By flushing menstrual products, as opposed to binning, they are able to discreetly and easily get rid of the “evidence”. It’s been found that ¼ women improperly dispose of tampons because of period shame.

We are committed to breaking down the period taboos which are not only harming women, but the planet, too. By ostracising a normal bodily function, proper education and facilities become less and less accessible, meaning that periods are pushed to the side lines. It's these not-so-subtle bits of messaging that lead many of us to improperly dispose of period products, causing clogged drains and higher levels of plastic pollution.

To become a part of our movement for change and to push back against period stigmas, talk loudly and proudly about menstruation. Tag any period positive posts on social media with #WeAreFempowered, to show that bleeding is not only totally normal but can be something that to be celebrated!

Where did we get our stats and facts from?

November 16, 2020 — Team Fempowered

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