Turning Tides: Call for Plastic-Free Periods as Products Wash up on World's Beaches


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Updated 43d ago

Going plastic-free isn't an easy task – that sucker's in everything, is cheap to make and has been engrained in manufacturing processes across the world. Yet, that doesn't mean we should stop seeking alternatives, especially as surfers, where some of that waste will eventually end up in the ocean.

Well, actually, it's 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters our playground every year. Perhaps something that hasn't been spoken about openly in the past, is the hidden plastics in period products – but a fresh call to arms from City to Sea is raising awareness for plastic free periods and aims to highlight toxic-free alternatives and alternatives in general for surfers.

What's the problem? Independent product-testing has found one pack of period pads to contain the same amount of plastic as five carrier bags. For someone using pads alone to manage their periods, this equates to 102 plastic bags worth of plastic every year. A new report by Women Engaged for a Common Future found some tampons and pads to contain pesticide residues, hormone-disrupting fragrances and plasticisers.

Anyway, to talk about the campaign we checked in with Sophie Hellyer, surfer, open ocean cold water swimmer, ambassador for the campaign and who has an all-encompassing eco policy.

First up, how's life in the world of Sophie Hellyer and what boards are you riding right now?
To be honest, life is pretty cruisey down here in Cornwall. It's quietened down now it's getting colder and it's that great time of year where the water temp is just warmer than the air.

I'm riding a 5'8” Doofer from Fourth Surfboards and a 9ft Single Fin from Sempa. I'm mostly surfing around Porthtowan with the occasional dash to the south coast.

As surfers, it's paramount that we think about the impact we have on the ocean. What are a few simple things to do that can change people's habits when it comes to plastic pollution?
I totally agree, as surfers, we need to protect our playground. There are definitely a few "sustainable swaps" I advocate for, like reusable period products, water bottles and plastic-free, local veg boxes.

Having someone else's used period pad hit you in the face when you're paddling for a wave isn't cool, trust me

However, I think one of the main issues is that we all tend to consume too much, we can't shop our way out of the climate crisis. The main thing we need to do is consume less of everything.

And this campaign feels like something that isn't spoken about often – the plastic waste from periods. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, I think a lot of people are unaware of the issue of period plastic. Most traditional period products contain single-use plastics, which isn't good for your body or the planet.

In the UK it's estimated that 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million pads are flushed down the toilet every day! That's a lot of plastic going into the ocean and landfill. 
There is still a lot of stigma and shame around periods which is entirely unfounded; periods are totally natural.

The more we talk about periods, the more we raise awareness and the faster the solutions will be commonplace. 

Let's change the current reality.

Let's change the current reality.

Ultimately, this waste ends up in the ocean. But we can't demonise people for using tampons or other products, because there's been no innovation for years. Or if there has, it's been downplayed. What alternatives are there?
Definitely not demonising anyone for using single-use, just hoping to educate people who have periods on better options. The first menstrual cup was actually made in the 1930s!

However, they weren't a mainstream option or easily available in the past. Now, there are loads of brands of menstrual cups, and Boots even have an own-brand one which is available in most of their stores.

Period pants tech is also really good these days, brands like Thinx make underwear with an absorbent layer. And there's also reusable pads, the DAME reusable tampon applicator, and lots of brands doing organic, plastic-free tampons and pads. 

The more people who use plastic alternatives the better, right? How do you break the mould?
Hopefully just by having these conversations! I'll chat about my menstrual cup with anyone who will listen.

For people who don't know, what's the plastic content of period products?
I think a packet of period pads is about the same as five carrier bags. Scary.

Criticisms we hear about products like Mooncup are, 'it looks uncomfortable' and, 'what about using it in the water' – any truth in that?
I wear a menstrual cup for surfing. When I first started wearing it, I found it a bit uncomfortable. I mentioned it to my girlfriend in the line-up one day, and she said: "haven't you trimmed the stem?" The answer, no, I had not trimmed the stem.

The result was a slightly grazed labia. Anyway, once I got that all sorted it's totally comfy and fine and I've no problems whatsoever. Learn from my mistakes!

If the menstrual cup isn't your thing, organic cotton tampons are great for surfing too.

As a surfer, what brought you on to advocate for this?
Having someone else's used period pad hit you in the face when you're paddling for a wave isn't cool, trust me. 

What else can be done to help with plastic pollution?
Ultimately, we need to consume less, not differently. In other words, we shouldn't just be talking about swapping one single-use item for another. Instead, maybe we should be changing our mindsets and slowing down the speed at which we live. And vote, always vote.