Menstrual hygiene is costly for people and the planet. But it doesn’t have to be.

"Period poverty" — being unable to regularly afford menstrual hygiene products — affects people around the world.

For the millions living in poverty, affording menstrual products is a huge challenge. And it's not just those living in developing countries who struggle. Advocacy group Plan International estimates that 1 in 10 girls in the U.K. — a wealthy, developed nation — are unable to afford sanitary products. In the U.S., 42 million women live at or near the poverty line, and since many public benefit programs consider menstrual products "luxuries," menstrual hygiene is unaffordable.

Countries are battling period poverty in various ways. India recently eliminated its 12% "luxury tax" on sanitary pads and tampons after a widespread campaign put pressure on the government.


In New York state, all public schools now provide free tampons and pads to students, and some schools in the U.K. are offering the same.

But the question of disposable sanitary product affordability also raises questions of environmental sustainability — is providing one-use pads and tampons really the best way to go?

Disposable menstrual products are an environmental blight.

In the U.S. alone, people use and throw away 7 billion plastic tampon applicators per year. According to the book "Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation," the average menstruating person will throw away 250 to 300 pounds of disposable menstrual products during their lifetime. Considering that's about half the population, that's a whole lot of period trash flowing into landfills and polluting our oceans — trash that will long outlive the people throwing it way.

Image via AFP/Getty Images.

And it's not just the disposal of tampons and pads that's an issue. The production of non-reusable menstrual products also uses plastic, rayon, and other materials that cause harm to the environment.

Environmentally friendly menstrual products are also more affordable in the long run — potentially solving both economic and ecological problems.

There are three main reusable options for people with periods: washable pads, period underwear, and menstrual cups — and all three cost far less than pads and tampons in the long run.

Washable pads work the same way cloth diapers work and can be reused until the cloth wears out. Period underwear works similarly, with an absorbent pad built into panties. Both the pads and the undies can be washed in the washing machine.

Sun’s out, pads out. #gladragspads #breezy

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However, access to washing facilities may limit their viability for people living in poverty. Unclean pads can increase risk of infection.

Menstrual cups are another sustainable option. Inserted like a tampon, these silicon or latex cups collect blood; however, unlike a tampon, they can be worn all day or all night. And because they require a minimal amount of clean water to maintain, they are a good option for people living in places with limited sanitation.  

“We have done a small pilot project at a refugee camp in Malawi. And another of our projects in a drought stricken area of Kenya showed that cups were a better option than cloth or washable pads due to the much smaller amount of water required to keep them clean and use them safely," a representative of The Cup Effect told Passblue. "If there is enough water to sustain life, there is enough water to use a menstrual cup safely.”

However, the cup is not a panacea for period poverty either because it does have limitations for certain people, including those who have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM).

So while there's no one perfect solution, looking beyond simply supplying more disposable sanitary products to those living in poverty may be a smart move both economically and ecologically.

Where people and governments can help is defraying the upfront cost of reusable products.

Reusable menstrual products do cost more out of the gate, but the cost is quickly recouped and long-term savings are significant. Product needs and usage varies widely. However, The Penny Hoarder estimates that using a menstrual cup can save $100 per year. And since menstrual cups can be used for 10 years, their environmental impact is minimal and tiny compared with disposable products.

However, that upfront cost makes reusable options out of reach for people who are struggling to make ends meet. A community-led initiative in New Zealand is battling period poverty by making menstrual cups more accessible. The initiative has given out more than 80 menstrual cups in the community since September 2017. Such projects can have a significant effect on people's lives.

Again, there is no single best solution to period poverty as each person will have specific circumstances and needs. However, a good percentage of the population — and our planet — could benefit from providing people sustainable, affordable options for managing menstruation.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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