The Delicate Balance between Period Poverty and Sustainability: A Case Study in Mexico

By Abby Neiser

Global Citizen, a movement dedicated to combatting global poverty, defines this issue as “the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and, or, waste management” (Sánchez & Rodriguez, 2019).  Period poverty, according to the World Health Organization, affects at least half a billion people around the world (Daniel, 2020).  In other words, not only is it the lack of access to products but also the lack of adequate sanitation infrastructure needed to properly clean oneself and/or the products.  Sanitation is a major issue around the world, particularly in less-developed countries.  For example, only 27 percent of people globally are able to properly wash their hands at home (Sánchez & Rodriguez, 2019).  Even if one has access to sanitation services, products are often difficult to obtain.  Hygiene products are often treated like luxury items rather than necessities and heavily taxed as a result (Sánchez & Rodriguez, 2019).  Menstruating people frequently have to use makeshift products such as rags, paper towels, toilet paper, and even cardboard (Rapp & Kilpatrick, 2020).  These products are linked to several negative health outcomes, namely urinary tract infections, gynecological infections, and skin irritation (Rapp & Kilpatrick, 2020).  Moreover, period poverty is also detrimental to mental health and society as a whole.  Menstruating people who experience period poverty have a higher rate of anxiety and depression, and the taboo around menstruation can also negatively affect mental health and access to the products (Rapp & Kilpatrick, 2020).  Period poverty is linked to school absenteeism and higher rates of domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancy, child marriage, and malnourishment (Rapp & Kilpatrick, 2020).  In short, period poverty is an urgent public health crisis that must be addressed in every country affected by it.

Mexico is one such country, and studying the Mexican case in particular sheds light on the tension between solutions to period poverty and sustainability.  About 40 percent of the Mexican population lives in poverty, meaning that many menstruating people in the country likely struggle to afford sanitary products (Ríos, 2021).  UNICEF data shows that nearly half of menstruating school-age girls prefer to skip school when they are on their period (Bello, 2021).  Sanitation is also a major issue in the country.  In Mexico City, for example, more than a third of residents do not have access to a water supply on a daily basis, and over a quarter of the population either does not have a flush toilet or must share one with others (Ríos, 2021).  Additionally, potable water is unavailable in 23 percent of Mexican schools (García-Bullé, 2021).  Part of the problem is that Mexico has a mindboggling 16 percent luxury tax on menstrual products (Sánchez Velasco, 2020).  Worse yet, last year, the legislature rejected legislature to remove this tax (Sánchez Velasco, 2020).  Period poverty is also a major problem in prisons, where menstrual products are treated like contraband luxuries and exorbitantly expensive as a result (Chávez Pacheco, 2021).  One state, Michoacán, has passed a Menstruación Digna law that incorporates menstrual education into health education in schools (Bello, 2021).  However, such a law has yet to be passed anywhere else or nationally, and period poverty remains a significant problem in Mexico.

The Mexican case has an interesting complication that pits two important issues against one another.  Led by its first female mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City introduced a single-use plastic ban at the beginning of 2021, intended to limit unnecessary plastic waste (Rodriguez & Critchley, 2021).  Included in this ban are tampons with plastic applicators (Ríos, 2021).  Sheinbaum had intended to promote the availability of tampons with different applicator materials but was unsuccessful due to the pandemic (Rodriguez & Critchley, 2021).  As a result, many people made a mad dash to purchase the last of the tampons, leading to a shortage (Ríos, 2021).

While officials claim that other options are available, advocates argue that these options are limited and not truly accessible (Ríos, 2021).  Victoria Michel of Copa Menstrual México, an organization that promotes menstrual cups, for instance, believes that moving away from disposal menstrual products is the right direction but that the educational and product availability groundwork has not yet been laid (Ríos, 2021).  Menstrual cups and period underwear are more economical long-term but have a much larger upfront cost that makes them inaccessible for many who are living paycheck to paycheck (Ríos, 2021).  For reference, a menstrual cup or period underwear can be anywhere from four to twelve times more expensive than a box of tampons (Ríos, 2021).  Cups and period underwear must also be kept clean, which can be difficult without consistent access to sanitation services.  Additionally, these products are difficult to find in brick-and-mortar stores in Mexico, and many menstruating people in poverty do not have access to the banking infrastructure or internet needed to purchase products online (Ríos, 2021).  Ironically, even as the government pushes for menstrual cups, it has actually made them more inaccessible by only allowing three menstrual cup brands to sell their products in the country (Ríos, 2021).  Disposable pads are another option but are considered to be uncomfortable compared to tampons, and most contain plastic and are therefore likewise not sustainable (Rodriguez & Critchley, 2021).  Until tampons with non-plastic applicators and reusable products are more readily available, the single-use plastic ban will continue to put people experiencing period poverty in a bind.  Advocates argue that linking access to basic hygiene products with environmental damage is unfair and detrimental to menstruating people (Ríos, 2021).

Nonetheless, the sustainability of menstrual products is also an important issue.  Over the course of their life, one menstruating person uses, on average, about 11,000 disposable menstrual products (Ríos, 2021).  This works out to 300 pounds of plastic waste and a carbon footprint of 5.3 kilograms per person (Environmental reasons to switch to a menstrual cup; Rodriguez & Critchley, 2021).  A plastic tampon applicator can take 150 years to decompose (Ríos, 2021).  The major non-plastic component of tampons is cotton, which is an extremely water intensive plant (Environmental reasons to switch to a menstrual cup).  Chemicals in tampons can seep into the ground after being thrown away and cause air and water pollution (Environmental reasons to switch to a menstrual cup).  Though sanitary products must be viewed as a basic necessity for all menstruating people around the world, the industry must also move toward avoiding the environmental detriments that makes these products so unsustainable.

Some innovations have been made to combat period poverty in a sustainable way.  One product worth noting is Flo, which was developed by Mariko Higaki Iwai (Daniel, 2020).  Flo is a period kit that includes reusable pads, a wearable pouch to put the pads in, and a device that cleans the pads (Daniel, 2020).  This not only addresses the product accessibility problem but also the sanitation problem.  If implemented on a large scale at a low cost, something like Flo could dramatically reduce period poverty while also avoiding damage to the environment.  Flo would certainly meet the goals and restrictions set by the single-use plastic ban in Mexico City.  Additionally, work has been done to destigmatize menstruation so that conversations about period poverty are easy to have.  For example, UNICEF created and distributed comic books educating both boys and girls about menstruation in Indonesia (Daniel, 2020).  After reading the comics, nearly all of the boys surveyed in one town were against bullying the girls for their periods (Daniel, 2020).  University of Massachusetts Boston professor, Chris Bobel, emphasizes the importance of erasing the taboo of menstruation in combatting period poverty, as providing hygiene products alone without accompanying education may lead to people thinking that something is wrong or dirty about them (Selby, 2019).  Implementing either or both of these initiatives in Mexico could help to address period poverty while also keeping sustainability in mind.

Though not talked about nearly enough, period poverty is a critical issue for the future.  The World Bank estimates that every additional year beyond the average number of schooling for girls provides a 10-20 percent increase in eventual salary and that increasing the number of women in secondary education by one percent leads to a 0.3 percent rise in GDP growth rate (Brennan).  As previously mentioned, period poverty is linked to negative health outcomes, poorer mental health, and significant social consequences, all of which could be decreased if the issue were addressed.  Nonetheless, improvements in human development are only sustainable if they do not cause other problems later on down the road.  While pads and tampons are important, their environmental impact may come back to haunt us in the future.  Thus, it is critical that we think about solutions to period poverty that are as low impact as possible.  An outright ban that leaves menstruating people scrambling to find products with no viable alternatives is likely not the right way forward, but the single-use plastic ban’s effect on period poverty in Mexico is an important lesson of how imperative it is that we contemplate how to resolve the tension between these two extremely important issues.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


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