• Ella Daish is campaigning for the removal of plastic from menstruation products, which are a major source of plastic pollution.
  • Her campaign has so far led to three major UK retailers ditching plastic tampon applicators.
  • Ella sat down for an interview with the World Economic Forum to discuss her activism and why it is so important.

What is your background?

Before I was a campaigner, I worked a regular, full-time job as a postal worker for Royal Mail, which I loved. For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about the environment and protecting animals. My parents brought me up in this way and to always stand up for what I believe in, which has helped shape who I am today.

What is the big issue that you are trying to solve?

The use of plastic in menstrual products is totally unnecessary and their harmful environmental impacts are completely avoidable, which is why I am calling on manufacturers and retailers to take responsibility and bring about change.

Why is this such a huge concern? How does plastics in menstrual products affect the environment?

It is a huge problem. Period products are made in their billions, are used for four to eight hours before being disposed of, and can then take over 500 years to break down. They contribute to the extraction of fossil fuels and after being used are incinerated, sent to landfill or pollute the environment.

It is estimated that 50% of UK users wrongly dispose of tampons and pads down the toilet, resulting in a massive 1.5 - 2 billion being flushed each year. When this happens, they enter the sewerage system and if they are not captured, they end up in our rivers, flow into the sea and wash up on our beaches. In fact, period products are the fifth-most common item found polluting Europe’s beaches, more so than straws or coffee cups.

They contribute to ocean plastic pollution and overtime their plastic content breaks down into smaller pieces, known as micro-plastics and fibres. This poses a further threat to vital eco-systems where they can enter the food chain; even crabs in the River Thames have been found with period pad plastic in their stomachs.

Mainstream tampons and pads can contain up to 90% plastic, as well as other synthetic materials such as rayon, artificial fragrances, and toxic chemicals, like phthalates and petrochemical additives. These ingredients are known to cause endocrine-disruption that is linked to diseases such as infertility and cancer.

We do not know the full health implications as there has not been enough scientific research carried out. We use them from a young age, for around 40 years, and for up to eight hours at a time in direct contact with one of the most absorbent parts of our body. This is why more research is important and much needed.

UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's has agreed to remove plastic from its period products
UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's has agreed to remove plastic from its period products
Image: Ella Daish

What are the key ways in which you work to address this issue?

The first is by taking focused action and calling on manufacturers and retailers to remove plastic from their products. Manufacturers tend to put the blame on consumers to avoid ownership of the problem, but they have got the money and resources to bring about change at source and that is exactly what needs to happen.

Another is by starting conversations and raising awareness, as so many are unaware of the problem. Social media is a powerful tool and using it has enabled the campaign to gain momentum and effectively spread the word to an even wider audience. I also use artwork and imagery as it is another medium that helps to communicate the issues in a different way.

What’s been your biggest win so far?

Two major wins stand out to me. One is the campaign resulting in three UK retailers removing their plastic tampon applicators, which collectively saves over 17 tonnes of plastic annually.

The second is the Welsh Government and councils listening to my calls for them to spend their period poverty funding, which makes products freely available at schools and colleges, sustainably. Four Welsh councils have committed to spending 100% of their funding on eco-friendly products and the Welsh Government has stipulated 50% of funding across Wales must be spent in this way. I am so proud of the progressive steps being taken in Wales; it shows the positive differences that local authorities and government can make.

Period products are the 5th-most common item found polluting British beaches
Period products are the 5th-most common item found polluting British beaches
Image: Women's Environmental Network

What’s holding you back? What do you need from others to succeed?

The biggest thing holding me back is period industry giants who respond with excuses, pin the blame on consumers, avoid the conversation and do nothing. However, individuals have a part in how this plays out. As the American writer Alice Walker put it: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” This quote says it all; as individuals we often think we cannot make a difference, but that is not true.

We need collective action on all levels to make the future a better place and that includes companies and governments. One of the things you can do is to hold them accountable – and if they do not change, to spend your money with those that match your ethics and values. If words will not win them over, seeing their profits going down will.

What is your call to action for people reading this? What can we do right now to help you and your mission?

Sign the petition: You can help support the campaign by signing the petition and getting involved with the actions taken on manufacturers and retailers. The more people that add their voice to the campaign, the bigger the impact.

Start conversations: Starting conversations with those around you about the hidden plastic in period products is important. It has far-reaching impacts and when people find out, they tell other individuals about the issue. This flow of conversation creates a wave of awareness, action, and change. It is powerful.

Have a plastic-free period: One of the ways that you as an individual can take direct action is by switching to plastic-free period products! There are plenty of alternative options out there, such as eco-friendly tampons and pads, and reusables like menstrual cups, cloth pads, tampon applicators, and period pants.