When Laura Coryton started her first petition in 2014 — to abolish the United Kingdom’s “tampon tax” on menstrual products — she was a 21-year-old politics student at Goldsmiths, University of London. She thought the whole process would be over soon after it began.

“I never thought I’d spend the next six-and-a-half years talking about tampons,” she said. “I thought maybe my friends would sign it, and it would give me some kind of insight into what it’s like to try and make change.”

Laura Coryton is the activist behind a petition that received more than 318,000 signatures and ultimately led the UK government to scrap its "tampon tax." (Courtesy of Laura Coryton)
Laura Coryton is the activist behind a petition that received more than 318,000 signatures and ultimately led the UK government to scrap its "tampon tax." (Courtesy of Laura Coryton)

But by garnering more than 318,000 signatures, the petition ultimately helped ax the 5 percent value-added tax, which classified tampons and pads as nonessential. On Jan. 1, the tax was officially eliminated when the United Kingdom’s economic split from the European Union was finalized. The U.K.'s Treasury has estimated that the abolition of the tax will save a menstruating person almost 40 British pounds — about $54 — over the course of their lifetime, according to the BBC.

Ever since the tax was first introduced in 1973 at a rate of 10 percent, female members of Parliament with the Labour Party have joined activists to help fight it. In 2015, a year after Coryton created her petition, Labour lawmaker Paula Sherriff began lobbying to eliminate the tax completely.

The same year, the U.K. government established the Tampon Tax Fund, which has since distributed about 47 million British pounds — or about $64 million — to charities working with vulnerable women and girls. Coryton is now campaigning for the government to continue reallocating money to the charities from funds raised from the tax since 1973.

The axing of the tampon tax comes as the latest government-sponsored effort to make period products more accessible throughout Britain, including Scotland’s move last November to become the first country in the world to make menstrual products freely available in public bathrooms. England has made moves over the past few years to offer pads and tampons free to public school students and patients of its National Health Service.

For Coryton, eliminating the tampon tax serves as another important — and long-overdue — step in reducing sexism in government and society at large by acknowledging the reality of menstruation.

“It’s a legal declaration of the essential nature of products that are important to people who have periods,” she said.

A slew of countries — including Kenya, Uganda, Canada, India, Australia, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa, Germany and Rwanda — have scrapped their value-added taxes on pads and tampons since the early 2000s, following pushes from activists who have called the taxes sexist. In the United States, the tampon tax remains in place in 30 states, according to Laura Strausfeld, co-founder of Period Equity, a legal organization dedicated to ensuring access to menstrual products across America. Meanwhile, critics argue that the tax functions as an important revenue source for governments, and they have pointed out that the tax applies to many items, not just menstrual products.

In the United Kingdom and beyond, axing the tampon tax is only the tip of the iceberg in the fight to reduce period poverty — a catchall term for inadequate access to menstrual hygiene products and resources — which affects menstruating people around the world. Other barriers to accessible and sustainable period products remain, and the pandemic has only exacerbated them, according to U.K. activists.

Almost 30 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 21 in the United Kingdom had trouble affording or accessing sanitary wear while in lockdown, children’s charity Plan International UK found last May.

Gabby Edlin has been working to change this reality as the founder and chief executive of Bloody Good Period, a charity she started in 2016 that provides free menstrual products to refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

Since the lockdowns began last March, the group has broadened its reach and provided 60,000 free period products to anyone in the United Kingdom who has needed them, Edlin said, adding that the need for period products increased — even among those who had previously been able to easily afford products — as people lost their jobs and stayed at home to avoid potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

“It really affected all types of people, all spheres of society,” she said.

The problem did not spare the front-line workers who make up the U.K.’s National Health Service, Edlin said. Some of these workers told Edlin that by the time their long shifts ended, they often had trouble finding affordable menstrual products in stores, as panicked shoppers cleared the shelves of the products soon after they were stocked.

“[NHS workers] were going to supermarkets, where you’d normally get quite reasonable or cheap products, finding the shelves empty, and then going to the corner shop and not being able to afford a 5-pound markup for a pack of tampons,” she said.

All told, the pandemic is laying bare the need for more equitable access to sustainable period products, activists say. Now, they are building on groundwork they spent the past few years putting into place to create the changes they want to see in the future.

Schools are a first step

After Scotland became the first country in the world to make menstrual products freely available in public bathrooms last November, Edlin started a petition — which has so far secured more than 30,000 signatures — addressed to Britain’s Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, demanding the government follow Scotland’s lead.

In response to a request for comment about Edlin’s call for free period products, a U.K. government spokesperson said it “has taken numerous steps to ensure that sanitary products are available and affordable for all who need them,” including scrapping the tampon tax and making period products free to NHS England patients and students in public schools in England.

Credit for the latter goes to Amika George, a history student at the University of Cambridge who in 2017 launched Free Periods, an organization advocating for access to period products. In 2019, the group partnered with another organization with similar aims, the Red Box Project, and human rights lawyers to launch a legal challenge against the government, claiming that it was failing to fulfill its legal obligations to ensure equal access to education for all children by not providing menstrual products in state-run schools in England.

In response to the legal challenge, the government rolled out free pads and tampons last year to schools that ordered them. But only about 40 percent of eligible schools have signed up to take advantage of the program, according to George, who said that Free Periods has been trying to spread the word about the new rules.

Research shows that period poverty causes young people to miss school around the world. Nearly half of girls in the United Kingdom have missed a full day of school because of their periods, according to Plan International UK. In the United States, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Women’s Reproductive Health found that more than half of the nearly 700 young women surveyed modified their attendance to high school — by missing school, being late to school or leaving school early — while on their periods as a result of not having access to period products. Public schools in New York, Boston, New Hampshire, Illinois and California are among those that offer free menstrual products in the United States, and student activists in other states across the country have also pushed for free products.

Schools in England can still order the free products during the national lockdown, but with most students learning remotely, distribution of the products to students has become more difficult, George said.

“This only goes to show how imperative it is that free menstrual products are available in all places, for access by all,” she added.

Toward a sustainable future

But free products alone are not enough, according to Edlin: Sustainable pads and tampons are the key to both preserving the environment and reducing period poverty, she said.

“It’s really crucial that we include reusables from the outset when we talk about free products for everyone,” Edlin said. “It’s the most effective way, for many people, to end a cycle of not being able to afford products. If you can wash or reuse them yourself, then that’s ideal.”

Ella Daish has been calling for eco-friendly period products since she launched the End Period Plastic campaign in 2018, with a petition that has received more than 244,000 signatures calling on U.K. distributors of period products — including the companies that produce them and the stores that sell them — to remove plastic from pads and tampon applicators.

Activist Ella Daish, founder of the End Period Plastic campaign, built this six-foot-tall plastic tampon to draw attention to the amount of plastic applicators that wind up in British waterways. (Courtesy of Ella Daish)
Activist Ella Daish, founder of the End Period Plastic campaign, built this six-foot-tall plastic tampon to draw attention to the amount of plastic applicators that wind up in British waterways. (Courtesy of Ella Daish)

“There’s so much widespread unawareness about the plastic in these products,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense that products that we’re using for a few hours are taking hundreds of years to break down.”

Plastic makes up 90 percent of menstrual pads and 6 percent of tampons, according to the Women’s Environmental Network. And disposable pads and pantyliners containing plastic can take between 500 to 800 years to decompose, according to Menstrual Health Alliance India.

In the United Kingdom, an estimated 2.5 million tampons, 1.5 million pads and 700,000 pantyliners are flushed each day, according to a 2014 issue of the Journal of the Institution of Environmental Sciences. In the United States, up-to-date data about period product usage compiled by noncorporate sources is hard to come by. A 2019 National Geographic article notes that menstruating people in America bought 5.8 billion tampons in 2018 alone, and that a single menstruator will use between 5,000 and 15,000 single-use period products in their lifetime, most of which will end up in landfills as plastic waste.

As support for Daish’s petition grew, three major U.K. supermarket chains — Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Superdrug — stopped production of their plastic tampon applicators. Superdrug was also among a group of other stores, including Li-Lets and Morrisons, that launched their own eco-friendly lines of menstrual products. Others — including Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Boots — have since stocked their shelves with eco-friendly tampons, pads or reusable products, Daish said.

And after the Welsh government established a 2.3 million British pound grant in 2019 to fund free period products in schools, Daish also managed to help push the government to stipulate that at least half of the funding must be spent on eco-friendly products.

Now, Daish is focused on getting more major distributors of period products to fall in line.

“This year, I’m going to be putting more pressure on those that are resisting change, and the move is going to be more towards boycotting brands that aren’t doing the right thing,” she said.

WUKA, a London-based reusable period underwear company, is proof that sustainable period products can be both ethical and financially successful, according to founder Ruby Raut, who said her sales have more than doubled during the pandemic, in part due to people experimenting with a wider variety of eco-friendly period products from the comfort of their own homes.

WUKA is a reusable period underwear brand founded in 2017 by Ruby Raut. (Alba Duque for WUKA)
WUKA is a reusable period underwear brand founded in 2017 by Ruby Raut. (Alba Duque for WUKA)

“People are staying at home and have more time to think about how they can live sustainably,” she said of the surge in sales.

Raut founded her company in 2017. She was inspired by her upbringing in Nepal, where she experienced the practice of chhaupadi, which compels menstruating girls and women to spend their periods in isolation and sleep in huts outside their homes. It was made illegal in 2017, but girls and women have continued to endure the practice since then, leading the government to withdraw state support services from families that perpetuate the practice in an effort to end it.

As a teenager, Raut used a sari rag to absorb her period, she said, and missed at least three days of school per month to avoid having to use an open-air toilet with other students.

“It’s still a scar on me,” she said of the memory of those years.

These days, Raut is also contending with the U.K.’s 20 percent value-added tax on reusable period underwear, which persists despite the axing of the tampon tax and applies to the U.K. sales of WUKA products. She has launched a petition calling on Parliament to debate the tax on the underwear. The petition has received more than 17,000 signatures so far, but it needs 100,000 by its Jan. 20 deadline to be debated in Parliament — though petitions are sometimes debated with fewer signatures.

On Monday, Raut’s local member of Parliament, Liberal Democrat Daisy Cooper, introduced a motion supporting Raut’s petition with the hopes of raising awareness about the tax and spurring a debate. Though few motions result in debates, they often help increase public awareness about particular issues and campaigns, according to the U.K. Parliament website.

Regardless, for Raut, the Britain’s elimination of its tampon tax represents an important step forward in tackling period poverty. But a long road toward sustainable menstrual equity remains, she said.

“It’s a great success that finally, in 2021, [people] don’t have to pay extra money to bleed,” she said. “But as an environmentalist, the sad part is: Why are sustainable products still so far behind? Why are governments still not thinking about our future?”

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