MEXICO CITY — When Mariana Zarate was 9, she got her first period. She had no idea what was happening to her body, she said, but before she could figure it out, classmates had already spread the word about the blood they saw in the school’s bathroom. Although Zarate experienced heavy flows, her family didn’t allow her to wear tampons, because they believed it took away a girl’s virginity. Still, Zarate started using them in secret when she got to middle school, around the same time the Internet arrived at home and she was able to learn more about menstrual health — and realized that she wasn’t alone.
Now 27, Zarate is once again being told how to manage her period. In January, Mexico City became one of the largest cities to ban single-use plastics — which included tampons with plastic applicators. Feminist activists and tampon users are calling the ban a violation of human rights for the city’s 5 million women and people who menstruate.
The ban, which went into effect Jan. 1, is part of an effort to mitigate waste buildup. Tampons with plastic applicators were barred alongside plastic bags, cups, lids, balloons, straws and other products of general use. Soon after the ban came into effect, tampons with plastic applicators quickly ran out of stock in main stores and pharmacies. Some ran out of tampons completely.
The head of Mexico City’s Environmental Ministry, Marina Robles, said the ban is not on tampons, but on plastic applicators, and argued that there are other options available in the market. Robles said the decision to include this kind of tampon in the ban came after consideration of the damage of single-use plastics, research on what other countries were doing and conversations with the private sector. Policymakers also did a cost-benefit analysis, Robles said, in which they found that tampons with a plastic applicator are the most expensive option among disposable menstrual products.
“The bill is not meant to affect the variety of [menstrual product] options that women have sought for a long time in order to live with full freedom,” Robles said. International organizations including the United Nations and Green Peace also welcomed the ban as a step forward in the fight against climate change.
A person who menstruates uses, on average, about 11,000 single-use menstrual products in their lifetime, and plastic applicators can take nearly 150 years to decompose. Mexico City is not alone in pushing to reduce single-use plastics. By 2018, at least 127 countries had some legislation regulating plastic, and many environmentalists are calling to eliminate plastic from menstrual products. But countries still have vastly different approaches. While Australia has mostly eliminated plastic applicators from their tampons, 88 percent of those sold in the United States in 2015 had plastic applicators.
But pinning menstrual health against environmentalism is dangerous to overall reproductive health, many advocates say — and may have the adverse effect of worsening period poverty in the city. A month before Scotland became the first country to make menstrual products free, Mexico struck down a bill to eliminate the 16 percent tax on menstrual products, one of the highest of its kind in the world. Sustainable menstrual products such as the cup, reusable pads and period underwear have higher upfront costs, which can put a burden on families, and they may not work for everyone.
Such is the case for Zarate, who has a motor disability and has often felt excluded by companies that don’t create menstrual products with her in mind. As a biologist interested in ecology and resource management, Zarate said she started trying out more sustainable period products in college. But none of the three menstrual cups she tried were comfortable due to a malformation of her uterus, she said. Reusable pads were also an intriguing option, Zarate said, but washing them by hand every day was difficult for her because of her disability.
For Victoria Michel, an activist at Copa Menstrual Mexico, a community that shares advice on periods and menstrual health, the main problem of the tampon ban is that it doesn’t include a campaign that educates people on menstrual health. Michel is not against the bill’s goal of reducing single-use plastics, she said, but disagrees with how the government is implementing it without offering an alternative.
“The authorities’ assumption that women will search for information on the menstrual cup online when they don’t even know what it is and then argue for the cup as an alternative to tampons comes from a place of privilege,” Michel said. Introducing sustainable products into the market, or inviting women to try them, also requires upending taboos around periods, she added.
The women and activists interviewed for this article shared experiences that are common for many young people in Mexico, such as asking for a dark plastic bag at the corner shop to hide menstrual products or slipping them away quickly into their pockets. Many said they grew up not talking about menstruation and were subject to shaming if they did.
As Michel put it: “We have to unlearn everything society has taught us about our periods.”
Experts say a significant threat is the ban’s possibility of increasing period poverty in a country where 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. For those in the lowest income level in Mexico, menstrual health accounts for up to 5 percent of their monthly expenses. Many women in Mexico City also say that buying tampons on popular e-commerce sites may be out of reach for them.
The absence of wash facilities, privacy and hygiene can also add to period poverty. In 2018, about 36 percent of Mexico City residents lacked daily water supply, 17 percent didn’t have a flush toilet, and almost 10 percent shared one.
Sustainable menstrual products are not yet common outside online stores and remain expensive for those without the resources, a bank account or Internet access. A menstrual cup or period underwear in Mexico costs between $20 to $30 in U.S. dollars, while a box of tampons goes for $2.50 to $5.
Activists say one big reason menstrual cups haven’t kicked off in the Mexican market has to do with a health alert issued by the country’s health regulatory agency in 2016, which certified only three menstrual cup brands — effectively limiting competition and keeping prices high. (Robles said Mexico City has made an invitation to the health agency to “review products that could expand menstrual hygiene options.”)
On the other hand, a resale market for tampons with plastic applicators is now popping up online, with tampons selling for three times their price. Ultimately, critics of the ban argue it puts the burden of navigating environmental laws on women, as well as leaves them alone to figure out how to pay for new costs of living.
Conversations like these are also situated in an increasingly vocal fight for women’s rights throughout the country. In recent years, activists have been holding protests and massive marches against gender-based violence nationwide. The largest acts of resistance have taken place in Mexico City, including an 80,000-strong march on March 8, 2020, which called for justice for the victims of femicide, as well as the accompanying “A Day Without Women” protest.
Back in her home in Mexico City, Zarate doesn’t know what she will do once she runs out of the few tampons she has left. The thought of hunting for them across the city makes her cry in frustration, she said, and she knows of people who have driven to an adjacent state in search of them. Others are asking friends and relatives to buy them in their states.
For now, Zarate is relying mostly on disposable pads. She believes she has the right to live a healthy life and that includes having access to menstrual options, ideally provided for free by the government to everyone.
“Menstrual products are a basic necessity, not a luxury,” she said. “There are alternatives to take and room for the government and the industry to do things right.”