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ETHAN: Welcome to Episode 109 of the Sweaty Penguin: Antarctica’s Hottest Podcast. I’m your host, Ethan Brown, but today I’m actually not. Not your host I mean. I’m still Ethan Brown. I hope…. More on that in a minute. Today we will be talking about menstrual products, also known as the aisle of Target I avoid like the plague. Seriously, they could put all their football jerseys, grilling equipment, and candy in that aisle and I’d still slowly walk by it, peer in, and then scurry away.
ETHAN: So way back in 2020 when we were still talking about Carole Baskin and whether our patios fit two chairs six feet apart, one of our Producers Shannon had asked me if we could do a menstrual products episode. I said yes, but I hadn’t found an expert, and somehow, that got lost in translation and everyone thought I was too uncomfortable as a dude to talk about them. Which wasn’t true — I’m actually pretty shameless. Ask me about the time I had a poop bounce off the rim, I’ll give you all the details you want.
ETHAN: But even if I’m comfortable talking about menstrual products, I’m probably the only person comfortable with me talking about menstrual products. Just me saying the word “menstrual” twice in one sentence probably made half of you cringe. So in the spirit of Christmas, since Shannon has been asking for this for over two years, I decided that my gift to our wonderful producers would be my hosting duties for this episode.
ETHAN: So without further ado, have a Happy Holiday and a Happy New Year. We’ll be off next week, so I will see you again on January 6th. Here’s Shannon and Maddy with what’s sure to be the best… period piece of the year. Okay, you knew I had to squeeze one joke in… even if it disrupted the… flow of the episode– OKAY, I’M LEAVING!!
SHANNON: As women, there is only one subject the two of us wanted to cover on The Sweaty Penguin: our periods. And just like a pad, there are a lot of layers to this topic. For one, there are environmental issues related to all single-use plastic products that pads and tampons play a role in. Obviously these products are overall good and necessary, but there are ways to make them more sustainable. And there are also much deeper issues surrounding period stigma, menstrual product accessibility, and health and human rights — and all of that, believe it or not, is being affected by climate change too. So we have a lot of interesting things to cover today, but we’ll aim to answer these key questions: how do menstrual products impact the environment? How does climate change, economics, and social stigmas affect access to period products and proper menstrual hygiene? And most importantly, WHEN WILL MY ADVIL KICK IN?!??!
SHANNON: The Sweaty Penguin is presented by Peril and Promise: a public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, reporting on the issues and solutions around climate change. You can learn more at pbs.org/perilandpromise. If you want to take two minutes to help out The Sweaty Penguin, you can either leave us a five star rating and review or join our Patreon at patreon.com/thesweatypenguin. Doing either earns you a special shoutout at the end of the show; joining the Patreon gets you merch, bonus content, and a whole lot more.
SHANNON: But first, for all the TikTok boyfriends who didn’t know there are two holes, it’s time for Menstruation 101. [BELL RING] [Red Yellow Blue] Menstruation, or a period, is when the uterine lining sheds blood and other materials. After all, we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl. Menstruation happens at intervals of about one lunar month from puberty until menopause, except during pregnancy. But I want to point out that not only women menstruate and not all women menstruate. In fact, approximately 26% of the global population menstruate, and about 800 million people are menstruating each day. Which means every day, 800 million people are walking around super annoyed, they WILL lose it if their hair tie snaps in the middle of tying a ponytail, and it’s actually anti-feminist to get mad at them OR make them pay for stuff. [End Song]
SHANNON: So naturally, menstrual products have become a part of daily life. But what did people do before the invention of plastic, or pads that make your downstairs smell like a Nordstrom? Well, here’s Maddy with some period product history.
MADDY: [Danse Macabre] As we all know, people first started menstruating in 1896 with the invention of the first sanitary napkin by Johnson and Johnson. Ok I’m obviously kidding, menstruation has been around since at least Jesus times. That’s why this is the Christmas episode. Before 1896, menstruators would just stuff their undergarments with rags, which they then washed and reused. Which was probably the most sustainable solution in human history. But during World War I, inspiration struck when medical supply brands suddenly had to create a lot of surgical dressings. So what I’m saying is, it took men bleeding once to figure out that maybe women could use a product for their bleeding every month.
MADDY: But it gets so much better. Can you guess what some of the first sanitary napkins were made of? If you guessed moss, you’d be correct! Specifically, a variety of moss called sphagnum moss, which sounds disgusting but could absorb 20 times its weight and had antibacterial properties. Yes, women were peddled moss wrapped in gauze, and the packaging featured a smiling, Red Cross cap-wearing covergirl known as the “Sphagnum Moss Girl.” Step aside Supergirl, it’s Sphagnum Moss Girl. Her superpower? Foraging for period products in the woods! And although it does sound like something Erewhon would carry in 2022, sphagnum moss pads did not do well in the feminine hygiene market.
Then in 1921, Kotex came out with cotton sanitary pads, and those were a big success. Tampons actually were around before they were used for menstruation, to stop up bleeding in deep wounds and to introduce medicines including contraceptives into the vagina. But in 1931, E.C. Haas patented the “paper-tube applicator,” so you have him to thank when you accidentally buy the cardboard ones. And with that patent, finally, the modern tampon was born. [End Song]
Which brings us to today, where we have disposable pads and tampons that are convenient and hygienic. So there’s no denying that period product innovations have hugely benefited the menstruators of society. But like we’ve done in episodes about other necessities like food or clothes or housing, it’s still important to discuss how we can improve these products’ environmental footprint. We criticize out of love — it’s like when I told Ethan he wouldn’t be able to pull off a blonde skunk stripe in his hair. Obviously I was wrong on that one. [crickets] So with that, let’s go to Shannon to explore some of menstrual products’ environmental impacts.
SHANNON: Our expert today is Raffaella Villa, a Professor of Environmental Bioengineering at De Montfort University. Earlier this year, Professor Villa and her colleagues published a study in Cleaner Energy and Technology examining the environmental impact and waste management challenges related to menstrual products in the UK. According to Professor Villa’s study, we use a LOT of pads and tampons.
PROF. VILLA: What was striking [00:04:51] for us was the number of units used per year. And so we came up with a number of 3.275 billions of units per year in the UK [00:05:06] and UK is a relatively small, is relatively small country compared to U.S. for example, so, or India or you know China, so numbers are really big. [00:05:21] And so that that kind of translated into around 27,000 tons of waste per year.
27,000 tons per year! That’s almost as much as the amount of squishmallows in my closet! And I hate to break it to my marine biology girlies, but a lot of those period products end up in the ocean. According to a 2018 assessment from the European Commision, menstrual products are the fifth most common single-use plastic item found on Europe’s beaches, ranking higher than even plastic bags and plastic straws. Pads are almost entirely plastic and even tampons contain some plastic, so either of these products can break down into microplastics and affect the health of amphibians, seabirds, and fish. We always talk about Finding Nemo but we never talk about what Nemo keeps finding…..
According to Professor Villa, while there are key differences between various disposal methods, there’s really not a perfect way to dispose of these single-use plastic products.
PROF. VILLA: The sewer system [00:11:24] is not, is not designed to manage unflushable. […] So we shouldn’t flush anything that should not be flushed. So and and in in in in the UK, [00:11:39] the water company very, very sort of Simply say that there’s a Three P, you know, Pee, Poo and Paper, which is the only three things that we should flush down the toilet. [00:11:54] Anything unflushable, as I said, will impact both on the, on the sort of journey to the treatment plant, but also the treatment plant. And so that they are material that [00:12:09] are not, you know, once they recover at the wastewater treatment plant will be sent to landfill if they are, if they are not, if there are, you know, overflows, there are blockages, all this material will end up [00:12:24] in the environment, so that they’re not they’re not pleasant to to see and they’re also, you know, there is plastic associated with it and we know about the problem of plastic and microplastic around around [00:12:39] the world. The other, the other solution like you mentioned was, is the landfill. And yeah, I mean, if it goes into a waste, household waste, most of the household, [00:12:54] if it goes to landfill and I think U.S. is very similar to UK, you, you are very much reliant on landfill like us. There’s a lot of you know, usually landfill are managed. So [00:13:09] again, not the best option because plastic does not degrade.
SHANNON: Even some quote-unquote “sustainable” options create these issues. Some brands of tampons are compostable, but they have to be made of only organic materials to be able to completely break down. Maybe moss really is the best option. Even tampon applicators that are marketed as “recyclable” still end up in landfills because of the presence of bodily-fluids and blood after use, making them non acceptable in some recycling facilities. You know how you can’t recycle a pizza box if it has grease on it? Same situation, but significantly less spicy Italian sausage. Maybe. I don’t know what you keep up there.
SHANNON: And the list of environmental impacts of pads and tampons goes on and on. On the production side, the plastic to manufacture them comes from fossil fuels, meaning every issue we’ve discussed on this podcast about drilling, fracking, and petrochemical factories also apply here. And cotton, generally found in tampons, takes a lot of water to grow. One box of regular tampons requires over 1,500 liters of water. Coincidentally, that’s the same amount of blood my gyno says I need to bleed before she’ll prescribe me hormonal birth control. Cotton farming also requires significant quantities of nitrogen fertilizer, which as we’ve discussed in past episodes, can release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere — a greenhouse gas that has nearly 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
SHANNON: So that’s how menstrual hygiene impacts the climate. Yet in a much bigger and maybe more surprising way, climate change impacts menstrual hygiene. To explain that, we first have to understand some of the social and economic issues around menstruation. Maddy, take it away.
MADDY: Like most things historically related to women and marginalized genders, menstruation has a lot of “taboos” surrounding it. You may have heard period euphemisms of varying degrees of politeness: “Shark week,” “monthlies,” “being on the rag,” “the curse,” et cetera. Personally, I like to say Ariel’s visiting my undersea grotto. But it’s not just an issue of saying the word “period.” In fact, Professor Villa found these societal taboos actually made it a real challenge to complete her research.
PROF. VILLA: So the study was a very small study because we struggled to find funding for, for the work. And what we were initially wanted [00:01:51] to explore was really the sort of, how people manage, so the people acceptability of non, [00:02:06] you know, sort of non, how do you say, reusable menstrual management materials. […] So we had to buy [00:02:51] default look at sort of hard numbers and when we started looking at hard numbers, we realized that there was very, very little. Is almost like [00:03:06] a waste that is almost unmentionable because of the taboos that carries […] and a lot of the numbers that you find on the paper are assumptions. So there’s a lot of unknown because in reality we don’t really know what happens in, you know, in [00:03:36] closed, say, households or toilet, or wherever people are using the menstrual material.
MADDY: To hear that a centuries-old stigma made it harder to do her job is really disappointing. It’s like if fear of spiders prevented arachnologists from…putting spiders in your bed and seeing how many you swallow. And this taboo’s impact goes way beyond research. When menstruation is a taboo topic, which it still is in many countries, there’s a lack of availability, affordability, and education around menstrual products. Many menstruators have nowhere to turn, leading to an issue called period poverty.
MADDY: [Dark Past] Contrary to popular belief, period poverty does not refer to when I write an email using only exclamation points. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, “period poverty describes girls who are unable to afford menstrual care products and instead resort to making their own hygiene products or engaging in other activities that will allow them to procure products.” And sadly, the UNFPA has documented cases of period poverty all over the world. In Syria, they observed staggering amounts of infections for menstruators without access to clean and secure bathing facilities. In Uganda, people have used banana peels, leaves, and old newspapers, making them susceptible to breakthrough bleeding. And in Kenya, they found girls, presumably below the age of consent, engaging in transactional sex with older men in order to afford the products they need.
MADDY: And stigmas around menstruation only make these issues worse. Especially for young girls, breakthrough bleeding can lead them to stay home from school during their periods to avoid getting teased, resulting in a major blow to their education. Some communities view a girl’s first period as a signal that she is ready for marriage and child-bearing, especially scary given some girls begin menstruating as early as 7 or 8 years old. Other communities require anyone menstruating to live outside their home in a menstruation hut, which has led to cases of sexual violence, animal attacks, and deaths from extreme cold. And on top of that, some communities have a genital mutilation ceremony after a girl’s first period. Period poverty and period stigma are awful issues on their own, but combined, the problems they cause get so much scarier. [End Song]
MADDY: But period poverty and stigma aren’t just issues in other parts of the world. Here’s Shannon to discuss how these issues come up here in the United States.
SHANNON: The United States doesn’t have it quite that bad, but we still have a serious period poverty problem. Litzy Feliz, a high schooler from Providence, Rhode Island, says she’s seen friends struggling to afford menstrual products, adopting unhygienic practices, and even missing school.
CLIP 16-year-old Litzy Feliz has friends who stay home when they’re menstruating. Some can’t afford to buy pads. —Some of them have to buy it themselves because their parents don’t buy it for them. ‘Cause I have a friend that she buys it herself. She’ll be like, “oh, I have to buy it now, but I don’t really have the money, I don’t know if it’s gonna be more or less.” Like I see them worry about it.
SHANNON: Sadly, Litzy’s friend is not alone. A 2021 survey of U.S. students commissioned by Thinx and PERIOD found 23 percent of students have struggled to afford period products, 51% of students have worn period products for longer than recommended, and — this was actually in the survey — 76% of students believe they are taught more about the biology of frogs than the human female body in school. Like, come on! If we’re going to focus more on the biology of an animal than the female body, we should really be focusing on jellyfish. Did you know jellyfish are composed of 95 percent water? So cool. I love jellyfish. The survey also found almost half of Black and Latinx students feel they are not able to do their best work due to lack of access to period products, as compared to 28% among white students, which only adds to the education inequalities we already have in the U.S. So as much as period poverty might seem like a far-away issue for anyone who doesn’t see or experience it, Litzy reminds us that it’s very much an issue here in the United States.
SHANNON: But here’s the kicker: at the same time there’s a major issue with affording pads and tampons, 23 state governments in the U.S. have a sales tax on them. Almost all U.S. states exempt necessities such as groceries or prescriptions from their sales taxes, but in these states, pads and tampons are considered a luxury product, not a necessity. Excuse me for just a second… [screaming into pillow] Luxury product?! What do you think periods are, a trip to the White Lotus? I mean, yes in the sense that everyone’s miserable and my cramps may kill me, but that’s beside the point.
SHANNON: And if all that wasn’t enough, here’s Maddy to throw climate change into the mix:
MADDY: I didn’t think climate change could worsen child marriage and menstruation huts, but apparently it can! “Mother Nature?” Yeah right. Maybe God isn’t a woman. We’ve talked before on this podcast about how climate disasters affect sexual and reproductive health, and a lot of those same concepts extend to menstrual hygiene. Take water: the only drink that fast food restaurants absolutely refuse to give you. Seriously, you have soda cups the size of a small toddler but when I ask for water, you give me a paper shot glass? [Awaiting Decision] Water — be it too much or too little — creates quite a few issues for menstrual product access. In Mozambique, for example, droughts have diminished the supply of an absorbent plant used to make reusable pads, and lack of water has made it hard to maintain menstrual hygiene. And on the flip side, floods, monsoons, and cyclones often displace people, and many shelters don’t have private washing facilities or disposal systems for menstrual waste.
MADDY: And believe it or not, climate change also affects when people start menstruating, and no, not because you have to sync up to Mother Nature’s cycle. If she exists, she’s like a million years past menopause. The body requires a certain amount of energy and nutrition to menstruate, and as such, food insecurity has been linked to girls getting their first period at a later age than is natural. Food insecurity is worsened by reduced crop yields, brought about by climate change. Not only that, cyclones and floods often lead to chemical and oil spills. Exposure to pollutants like lead, PFAS, and polychlorinated biphenyls can also shift the timing of first periods. Getting your period later might not sound like a bad thing, that’s more time you get to be a kid and wear white pants with zero risk. But in reality, delayed first periods can increase the risk of fertility issues and osteoporosis later in life, and could have mental health impacts as well. [End Song]
MADDY: So are pads and tampons bringing about the downfall of humanity? Of course not. Obviously menstrual products are essential and NOT LUXURIES, and they constitute a small fraction of the world’s waste. But there is absolutely a more sustainable path forward. After the break, we’ll explore what some alternative menstrual products could look like, how access to products could be improved, and how we can make sure Nemo doesn’t have to get The Talk.
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SHANNON: The Sweaty Penguin is presented by Peril and Promise: a public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, reporting on the issues and solutions around climate change. You can learn more at pbs.org/perilandpromise.
MADDY: Despite the long list of issues we’ve discussed, we are in a new era of enlightenment when it comes to menstrual products. You’ve heard of the Medieval Renaissance, now get ready for the Menstrual Renaissance. [Vivaldi The Four Seasons Spring Movement 1 STING] And at the core of that movement is the idea of reusable products. According to Professor Villa, making that switch could have a significant impact.
PROF. VILLA: When we are talking about climate change, […] obviously the first thing that we think of is, […] car transport, […] airplane, but little things like daily, daily action that we do […] that impact our life that we have got [00:15:09] control on, could […] produce a massive impact. […] A simple switch from a single use to a reusable [00:15:25] material. It have a small impact, you know, in the big scheme. But if you think about how many millions of people, billion of people menstruate every day [00:15:41] it will make a difference.
MADDY: In recent years, brands have started to step up to that challenge, coming out with several reusable options like the cup, reusable pads, and period underwear to shock your grandma. Just listen to this ad from Thinx.
CLIP They’re period underwear, ma. They stop leaks from your period. —Period underwear? When I was young, we managed to put a man on the moon. But for 35 years, I had to search for a string in my buttcrack. I guess space travel is important too.
MADDY: Okay, a few things. (1) I have never had to fish a string out of my buttcrack. Is that a real thing? (2) Why is this difficult to explain to an older generation? It’s basically a diaper. And (3) Equating period innovations with the moon landing is actually offensive considering the moon landing is a myth. That said, for all the cringe in this ad, it does point out one valuable idea: reusable products aren’t just a ploy by Big Nature. They can genuinely be better solutions. Sure they help our oceans, but also people won’t have to buy new pads and tampons all the time which helps accessibility, and you have the convenience of not having to “fish a string out of your buttcrack,” I guess? So there are a lot of reasons to be excited about them, but they do still have some drawbacks. Here’s Shannon to dampen the mood.
SHANNON: For one, these products are pretty expensive. Almost as expensive as dating me. Reusable period underwear like Thinx can cost anywhere from $15 to over $40 per pair. 30 reusable pads can cost anywhere from $9 to $40. Menstrual cups can be $25 or more per cup, and you do have to change them out eventually. Even if they might be less expensive than single-use products in the long-run, those upfront costs still present a barrier for many people. That said, policymakers could absolutely find ways to make these products more readily available or even free, seeing as these products are a health necessity. Not a F—ING luxury item!!
SHANNON: Reusable products also require access to clean water, which Professor Villa explains.
PROF. VILLA: Obviously there’s another issue linked to reusable products that, you know, in certain situation is, is a challenge, [00:17:41] is the cleaning of this product. So you need to have clean water to, you know, so that there’s a lot of potential sort of other implication that needs to be [00:17:56] there and that’s why, you know, it is important to look […] at the bigger picture, not just the […] greenhouse gas emissions. Because in some cases, […] disposable [00:18:11] products are a better solution.
SHANNON: Of course, clean water is a necessity just for being alive regardless of what menstrual product you use, unless you’re like me and you only drink kombucha. But it’s true — in extreme droughts brought on by climate change, reusable products would not be a silver bullet solution.
SHANNON: But we can also make improvements to our single-use products. Professor Villa suggests that while they’re far from perfect, there could be some role for more sustainable disposable options.
PROF. VILLA: The [00:23:57] disposable, the single use sort of degradable, for example, are, as I said, potentially product that could replace [00:24:13] the reusable, in in specific in specific occasions. […] So definitely compostable and biodegradable are better than what we have now, which contains a lot of gels, a lot of microplastic, [00:24:58] so it’s definitely would. I would definitely welcome a change in that direction. But again, I’m still thinking that in the way that we [00:25:13] are managing the materials, it will still have an impact on, on the environment. So yeah, if we could, if we could join the biodegradable and composting [00:25:28] and be sure that all their material will go to compost or, you know, sort of degraded in in some kind of managed way then yeah. I think, I think there’s a space for that material as well.
SHANNON: Again, not perfect, but an improvement. Biodegradable or compostable products wouldn’t necessarily be more accessible, but they would help the environment, and bonus, you can grow yourself a lil period garden! Menstrual blood contains sodium, calcium, phosphate and iron which make it an awesome fertilizer for lots of delicious veggies! … Okay, just kidding, do not actually do this. Old menstrual blood can be a biohazard, so you should use that compost to grow plants and help soil, rather than growing food. That’s the official recommendation of The Sweaty Penguin Podcast. BLAH BLAH BLAH
SHANNON: But setting aside the “which product is best” debate, how can we help people access the products they need?
MADDY: Well, for one, the 23 states that tax pads and tampons could, you know… not. I know, hot take, but whatever money the government makes off this tax is probably not worth the missed school days, infections, and mental health issues that improper menstrual hygiene can create. Besides, the point of sales taxes is not to tax necessities like menstrual products. It’s meant to tax luxuries… like catheters.
MADDY: Another option for policymakers is to simply make menstrual products free! In 2020, Scotland became the first country to pass a government bill requiring all schools and public bodies to provide free period products, and the country will also commit to providing free products to anyone who needs them. A lot of U.S. communities have expressed interest in a move like this, and while some argue this would be too expensive for the government, it’s usually a tiny fraction of a government’s budget. Don’t worry — there will still be plenty of money to fund public libraries, snow plows that bury your car, and turning that pit into a park. And since were not legally aloud to play the Parks and Rec theme song, Ill give you a sec to just play it in your head.
MADDY: [Catalyst] Of course, free products don’t solve everything. How do we prepare for droughts and natural disasters? How do we hold other countries accountable for human rights violations? How do we fix global poverty and gender inequality? Those questions are a touch above our paygrade — we’ll answer them if you donate to our Patreon — but perhaps the biggest and simplest step in the right direction would be to stop stigmatizing periods, PERIOD. They’re natural. They’re healthy. They’re alternately the worst thing ever and a huge relief. And that stigma has either created or contributed to nearly every issue we’ve discussed today. According to Professor Villa, destigmatizing periods would even help her and her colleagues do more research. [End Song]
PROF. VILLA: Moralistically [00:26:44] there’s still a stigma. So it would be nice to look to look at the sociological kind of side. Of why people, you know, use disposable [00:27:00] pads even for example, in the house, you know, when you don’t need to or, you know, and night, for example, when you could really, you could use reusable products.
MADDY: And that’s a really interesting research question too. Ultimately, the more accepting people can be, the better all of these issues would get. Just look at Sri Lanka. When girls get their first period, they have a party akin to a Sweet 16, Bat Mitzvah, or Quinceañera, which includes ceremonies, gifts, and the girl’s family and community. In that sense, first periods are not just normalized but actively exciting. Damn, is it too late for me to have a period party? My theme would be Game of Thrones
MADDY: [Happy Diner Deals] So it’s probably clear by now that this is a really challenging issue. Menstrual products are so important, so the last thing we’d want to do is suggest that they themselves are a problem. But in figuring out how to make them more accessible, it’s exciting that reusable alternatives could help accomplish that goal while eliminating some single-use plastic issues in the process. If we can start destigmatizing periods and exploring more accessible and sustainable products, we’ll improve the environment, health and justice around the world, and maybe even go viral for growing the world’s first period garden. [End Song]
MADDY: This wraps up episode 109 of The Sweaty Penguin. Take two minutes, help out the podcast, and get a shoutout at the end of the show by leaving a five star rating and a review on Apple or Podcast Addict OR join our Patreon at patreon.com/thesweatypenguin. You get merch, bonus content, and more.
MADDY: Clips today came from PBS NewsHour and Thinx. Special thanks to our Emperor Penguin patrons Lawrence Harris and Brownies Central. The Sweaty Penguin is presented by Peril and Promise: a public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, reporting on the issues and solutions around climate change. You can learn more at pbs.org/perilandpromise. The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the host and guests. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Peril and Promise or The WNET Group. Thank you all for listening, and have a wonderful holiday. We’ll be off next week, but we’ll give you Ethan back on January 6th. But where was he on that date two years ago…….