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The Ecological Footprint of Aunt Flow

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April 18, 2018

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Yesterday I learned that every piece of plastic created since plastic was invented (that hasn’t been burned) still exists in some form today. I never really thought about plastic in an introspective way until I was in middle school and stumbled upon Ramin Bahrani’s short film called Plastic Bagwhich depicts life from a plastic bag’s point of view. This breathtaking eighteen-minute film narrated by Werner Herzog beautifully illustrates the realities of the Pacific Trash Vortex and the harm a single plastic bag can do.

And what I didn’t know until watching it was that plastic never really biodegrades and actually roams the earth and the oceans, even after breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces.

In fact, these pieces of plastic are so small that they are often mistaken for food. Other smaller species ingest the plastic and are then eaten by bigger fish, which are then consumed by humans like us–which isn’t the only reason why we should care but is still pretty important.

So for me, Plastic Bag really personalized the experience of plastic pollution, and it really got me thinking about my own ecological footprint.

The Great Pacific Trash Vortex is the largest trash vortex in the world, some claiming it’s twice the size of Texas. This large gyre of marine debris floats in the oceans and is comprised of countless pieces of plastic that break down to microscopic sizes but never completely disappear. One source from the Telegraph UK explains,

“The French cultural theorist Paul Virilio observed that every new technology opens the possibility for a new form of accident. By inventing the locomotive, you also invent derailments. By inventing the aeroplane, you create plane crashes and mid-air collisions.”

The invention of plastic is not excluded from this theory.  The first fully synthetic plastic was created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, who was looking for a substitute for shellac, “a natural electric insulator”.

He also writes, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a solid mass, as is sometimes imagined, but a kind of marine soup whose main ingredient is floating plastic debris.”

Among the floating debris is anything from plastic bags to bottles, Styrofoam and bottle caps–to name only a few.

Where does “feminine hygiene” come into play?

Upwards of 20 billion “sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators” end up in North American landfills each year. This source argues, “There is an urgent need to innovate and find sustainable and yet practical solutions to feminine hygiene challenges. The problem with stigma is that it often denies women a vocabulary to deal with the issues around menstrual health and hygiene. Open dialogue is the first step in changing the way women deal with menstruation and can create awareness around the need make a switch.”

The stigma around menstruation is very real and very harmful to everyone–not just people who have periods. We grow up thinking that our periods are something to be ashamed of, something to dread—and negative symptoms such as cramps, nausea and vomiting only add to the feeling that a natural process in the body is worthy of the shame and bad reputation it gets. Periods are stigmatized as something dirty and “unsanitary”. In reality, the question of cleanliness is blown way out of proportion by an uninformed, ignorant patriarchy that constantly lords PMS-ing over the heads of anyone who menstruates and has an opinion they disagree with. The previously stated source goes on to explain the effect of stigma: “In fact, the taboo surrounding menstrual periods stunted the development of new products in the space with little to no innovations for over 80 years.”

This all made me realize that I’ve never really considered the feminist aspect of my ecological foot print, until now. And the good news? People are giving more careful consideration to the destination of their waste. Plastic may be quite literally killing millions of animals, but other good things are happening.

In terms of menstruation, menstrual cups and organic pads are becoming more and more encouraged in the limelight. Brands like the DivaCup allow for period-having individuals to reduce their ecological footprint and maintain a smooth, low-traffic period. There are also reusable pads which are washed and reused for a considerable amount of time. Period panties are also another way to forgo the use of pantiliners to regulate period on light flow days.

Eco-friendly menstruation products are out there and a decrease of Aunt Flow’s ecological footprint is definitely possible. This could be something to consider, next time she comes to visit.

Image via the NOAA Photo Library