Over half the world menstruates. Yet conversations about periods are rare. Rarer still are discussions about the environmental impact of female hygiene products.
Beyond the social taboo, menstrual products generate extraordinary amounts of waste. Close to 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators are dumped into North American landfills every year. In India, more than half of India’s women and girls use disposable napkins, translating to 44.9 billion pads per year thrown away. In Pacific island countries, where waste often escapes to the ocean, this is a clear and present problem. Wrapped in a plastic bag, a feminine hygiene product can take centuries to biodegrade.
The carbon footprint from making disposable female hygiene products is also enormous: 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year – which is like burning 35 million barrels of oil.
The taboo surrounding periods, combined with the absence of female decision makers in business, has stunted the development of new products. Despite it being a $15 billion industry, female hygiene has seen few innovations for over 80 years.
That’s changing with the rise of female entrepreneurs like Angelica Salele, one of 12 winners of the UN Environment Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge. Together with her business partner Isabell Rasch, the duo are first to market in Samoa – and the entire Pacific – with their startup MANA Care Products, which makes affordable, sustainable and reusable cotton female hygiene products. The business offers women and girls an affordable and environmentally friendly alternative to single-use, disposable sanitary pads made of toxic plastic materials. They plan to also provide employment to a team of women seamstresses who will manufacture the product.
UN Environment spoke with Salele, one of the challenge winners, to find out how meeting women’s needs can help #BeatPlasticPollution.
UN Environment: When you first consulted women and girls about the problem and your solution, what did you hear?
Salele: The issue surrounding menstrual hygiene and access to products differs with different groups of women and girls. Higher-income women for example, are more concerned with convenience, time and associated environmental impacts. Those who expressed concern about the environment had a background or career relating to conservation or environmental protection and advocacy. Those who did not express concern considered it only after information on environmental impacts were shared.
For middle- to low-income women, the concern is about cost and access. These women were less aware of the environmental impacts, and a large majority did not consider the environment at all when it came to menstruation. This could be linked with the high use of cloth rags, and a lack of education on the topic of plastic waste and its link to menstrual hygiene products. Reproduction and menstruation are taught in some Samoan high schools, but not in a local context inclusive of hygiene and management. Whether this is discussed at home between mothers and daughters will be included in our data collection and research.
UN Environment: How does your business overcome taboos about menstruation? Can men join the attitude shift?
Salele: MANA Care is normalizing menstruation through open discussions in order to introduce the issues, and provide practical and environmentally safe solutions to those issues. “Mana” is a Polynesian word that is multilingual. In many Pacific island languages – from Samoan and Hawaiian to Maori and many others – the word “mana” carries the same definition, which is power. Our brand name was chosen as a direct reflection of our desire to empower women in all aspects relating to their menstrual health, be they financial or environmental.
UN Environment: What impact do you think the switch to reusable pads will have for women and girls?
Salele: We have learned through our consultations with women and government workers that there are girls in remote areas in Samoa who miss out on school during menstruation, because they do not have access to proper menstrual hygiene products. And while we note that this is true for many other developing countries and regions, we are perhaps the only region where solutions to this problem are most limited. Our product is the first of its kind to be produced locally in Samoa. Through it we aim to help keep girls in school by providing them with a cheaper alternative to the expensive disposable products currently available on the market, which they have difficulty accessing for many reasons. In addition to helping girls stay in school, we also want to help women, particularly those living in poverty, who have the same difficulty in accessing products, to be able to continue working, participating in society and living normal lives regardless of what time of the month it is.
UN Environment: How can we encourage more women and girls like you to be leaders in protecting our planet? What advice would you give to women and girls – and men and boys – who wish to become leaders for a low carbon and plastic pollution-free future?
Salele: We all have a role to play in protecting our environment, regardless of who we are. And the first thing we need to accept is that this role is our sole responsibility, and the most important legacy we can give our children. As women, our nature is naturally altruistic, to nurture or care for others, particularly our own offspring. We need to take advantage of this nature and empower women and girls, particularly in developing areas, to make changes in their own homes, communities and country by playing on their motivations to give their children a better future. Everyone can be an environmental leader, but the best leaders in history have been the ones who do not lead to serve themselves, but lead to serve others.
My greatest motivation, in almost everything good I’ve done, has been my children. But I know this sentiment is not unique and that it is universal among parents. To me, protecting our environment means protecting our children – so why isn’t it our top priority?
For more information: Janet Salem, [email protected]
Learn more about the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge.