SANITARY PRACTICES: Sustainable VS Non-Sustainable

Imagine a day of waking up with a headache, a cramp, low back pain— or all of them at the same time. It is a cycle that happens for several days once every month. It is not considered as a life-threatening condition to warrant an excuse to forget about your day’s duties and responsibilities, no matter how much it feels like so. So you get up and fix your bed, only to find red stains on the sheets. Despite anticipating this cycle every month, nobody knows the exact date and time it will come. Even the latest technology and mobile applications are only able to provide “predictions” on when they will start. Last night, you slept soundly as if the next day will be like any other. But you were wrong. Hence, the bed stains. You sigh because cleaning would take up more time on your schedule. Next month, maybe you can invest in pantyliners to wear days before the predicted D-day to avoid another accident on the sheets.

A few hours later, you go about your day, feeling pain and discomfort in various parts of your body. No matter how thin the sanitary napkin companies try to make it feels like it is barely there, it IS there. It never feels the same. 

Now, imagine the same day and situation, but as a person who does not have immediate access to a private bathroom for washing up, nor the finances to avoid “accidents”. Even females who have access to a private space and necessary supplies find these monthly cycles inconvenient, uncomfortable, and painful. Leaving homeless women helpless in accessing these sanitary needs is a breach of human rights.  

According to Human Rights Watch, “The right to sanitation, which is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, entitles everyone to sanitation services that provide privacy and ensure dignity, and that are physically accessible, affordable, safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable.”

Currently, sanitary products are considered as “non-essential luxury product” in the UK and in the US. This means that these products are subject to 5% valuable added tax (VAT). Last month, the UK government has announced that the tampon tax will finally be ineffective by December 31, 2020. 

As one barrier is broken down in the fight to provide all women with sanitary products that is aligned within the human rights, a new subject has been an increasing topic of debate.

Another pressing issue concerning the globe is climate change. With that, a lot of groups are working to figure out sustainable practices to prolong Earth’s habitability for the future generations. Most disposable sanitary products (sanitary napkins and tampons) are made using synthetic materials with odor neutralizers and other chemicals that are harmful to the environment and the user. Sustainable sanitary products, on the other hand include reusable menstrual cups and washable sanitary pads. These options are becoming more popular these days. Sanitary pads can be used for about 5 years, and menstrual cups up to 10. And yet, most females prefer to use the disposable options due to various reasons; they are easy to dispose without the need for cleaning, they are readily available in stores, and they are more conventional and widely advertised. 

Ideally, the sustainable option is the way to benefit both the environment and the users. However, if we shift the angle to view it from the homeless’ point of view, the perspective may be a bit different. Water is needed to maintain the use of menstrual cups and reusable pads; the previous requiring much less water than the latter. For women who have no immediate access to washrooms, changing and washing may be more challenging. 

Financially, the sustainable items trumps the disposable option by a wide margin. As mentioned above, a one-time purchase of these sustainable sanitary products can give the user 5 to 10 years of repetitive use. The only added cost would be for purchasing soap for washing. Portability is also important, as homeless women tend to move from place to another constantly. A menstrual cup or a sanitary pad would require a smaller space for storage, and is also more portable. The problem would lie upon the instance that these essentials were lost. It might be difficult to replace the item especially if they are not readily available in stores. 

For homeless women, the summary of the pros and cons of sustainable vs disposable option is as follows:


Convenience      Sustainable < Disposable

Maintenance      Sustainable < Disposable

Availability         Sustainable < Disposable

Cost                    Sustainable > Disposable

Health                Sustainable > Disposable

Portability          Sustainable > Disposable


If the government can ensure accessible use of washrooms with water for these women, the sustainable option may be a more cost-effective way for their monthly sanitary practices. However, as these options may still not be available at the moment, disposable napkins and tampons will have to do. If only they can be provided for every girl and woman in need, homeless or not.