Supporting Menstrual Health and Equity in Post-Secondary Institutions with Reusable Menstrual Products
By Olivia Stein, Free Periods Canada Foundation
Menstrual health products, such as pads, liners and tampons, are essential products for the livelihood, physical and mental health of those who menstruate. It has been estimated those with periods spend $6,000.00 over their lifetime on these products1. This cost is often difficult for many in Canada to afford, leading people to skip meals to buy products or to try to make do without them2. The inability to afford menstrual products is known as Period Poverty.
This important issue is the central focus of the Free Periods Canada (FPC) Foundation, a non-profit organization based out of Vancouver. Over the past 5 years, FPC has worked to distribute free menstrual products in Vancouver, organize a national conference about Period Poverty and has recently shifted focus to advocate for menstrual policy changes.
Through a collaborative research project, FPC wanted to know what products post-secondary students in Canada with periods use currently. Moreover, we were keen to explore the questions: what stops students from using more sustainable and/or reusable products, and how we can promote sustainability while reducing period poverty?
How is Period Poverty currently being addressed in Canada?
Over the last several years, there has been a significant effort to combat this problem in Canada, including the removal of the federal tax on period products in 20153. While this is a big win, menstrual products are still difficult to afford for large parts of the population. In the past year in British Columbia, the United Way Period Promise Research Project found that 51% of their respondents struggled to buy the products they needed. Organizations like Free Periods Canada Foundation, Aisle, the Mahwari Research Institute, and many others, are working towards reducing stigma, ending period poverty, and promoting sustainable periods.
Thanks to the sustained efforts of menstrual equity activists, institutions like civic bodies, corporations, colleges and universities are increasingly coming to the understanding that providing menstrual products to their students and staff is essential. Period products are no different than the common-sense obligation to provide toilet paper, soap, hand towels and other essential personal self-care items as a matter of basic human dignity. As a result, an increasing number of organizations are providing free disposable pads and tampons in bathrooms, as well as offering reusable products through online purchase or on-campus or workplace distribution.
How does Period Poverty Relate to Sustainability?
In Canada, the most commonly used menstrual products are single-use and involve plastics. This generates enormous amounts of landfill waste each year. In a lifetime, people who menstruate will use between 10,000 and 16,000 pads/tampons4. By changing to reusable products, such as cups, absorbent underwear or reusable pads, liners or tampons, massive amounts of waste can be avoided. Aisle has also conducted groundbreaking research in the form of a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of all of its products, yielding detailed data on the reduced greenhouse gas emissions and energy as a result of the adoption of its products over disposables.
This research gives a tantalizing picture of the potential for massive environmental benefits and cost savings if more colleges, vocational institutes and universities provided reusable products to their students as a choice alongside disposables. FPC calculated that during an academic year, a student who menstruates will use up to 140 pads. Using the population of UBC as a case study, considering the 32,500 regularly menstruating students attending the school, this adds up to 4,550,000 disposable period products used in an academic year alone. Meanwhile, a set of 5 Aisle washable cloth pads used instead of disposables over a 3 year period by 500 users would yield the following benefits: 2,700 kg of waste diverted (equivalent to 123,707 plastic bottles), 147,721 MJ of energy saved (equivalent to 615,504 LED bulb hours) and 9,282 kg of CO2 emissions saved (equivalent to 35,700 km of driving). Reusable products have a higher initial cost than disposables, but lead to savings in the long run.
From March through May 2021, Free Periods Canada surveyed post-secondary students across Canada and collected 470 responses.
In terms of current product usage, we found that 66.2% of students in our study use disposable pads with wings, 52.6% use panty liners and 36.8% use disposable tampons with plastic applicators. The most common reusable product was a menstrual cup, used by 36.0% of respondents.
The main reasons people chose a certain product was the environmental impact, the cost, the reliability and advice from a caregiver. Most students answered that it was “very important” for the products they used to be hygienic, comfortable and secure/reliable. Some reasons students explained for using single-use products were “because most people do and it’s convenient sometimes” and being “not very educated on anything else”.
When asked about what would lead them to use reusable products, respondents answered a free trial, more information about how they work, knowing that waste would be cut down by using them and knowing it would save money in the long run. Students in our study responded that turn-offs to using sustainable products are not feeling comfortable changing them at work/in public, worries about reliability/leaking, the cleaning/sterilization and hygiene. Overall, 80.4% of the students said they are either extremely likely or somewhat likely to take up a free trial of reusable menstrual products if it were available to them.
Given increasing institutional interest in providing menstrual products to their constituents, subsidizing purchase of reusable products through vouchers or bulk purchase and free distribution makes sense, and offers the additional benefits of reduced cost and waste . Marketing and social media campaigns from influencers are also needed to increase knowledge, awareness and trust in these products. This should be coupled with education and awareness campaigns, directed to people who menstruate and caregivers, addressing health concerns and explaining how to use and care for these products.
- Dudley S, Nassar S, Hartman E, Wang S. Tampon Safety. National Center for Health Research
Want to learn more about the research?
Click here to register for the 2021 Canadian Symposium on Sustainable & Equitable Periods!