Our Planet Hero shines a light on the most inspirational people taking action to protect our planet. Series 1 is sponsored by REN Clean Skincare. In this interview we talk to Ella Daish. After seeing shocking levels of litter on our streets during her postal rounds in 2018, Ella launched the #EndPeriodPlastic campaign encouraging leading brands to remove plastics from their period products. She’s also spearheaded the Eco Period Box initiative which has seen thousands of eco-friendly period products being donated to combat period poverty! Ella was awarded the Individual Inspiration award at the Green Heart Hero Awards in March 2020 and was listed one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2019, reflecting how influential her work has been.
Tell us about the turning point in 2018 which made you take action!
Prior to starting the campaign, I was working a regular day job as a postal worker for Royal Mail. While on delivery, I noticed the amount of waste being disposed of each week increasing. This was just a few streets, but it made me think about how much we throw away on a national scale.
This prompted me to reflect on my own consumption and I started to make product switches. I felt positive about the steps I was taking, but then my period started, and I noticed, for the first time, the amount of plastic waste I was generating during just one menstrual cycle. Some on-line research revealed that conventional tampons and pads – the ones I had been using for many years – contain up to 90% plastic – I was horrified.
I went into my local supermarket to get an alternative, but there was no choice, it was either plastic or plastic. This irritated me, because without a choice, how can we truly make a decision about what we buy? I switched to eco-friendly period products and thought someone else would probably do something about it. I kept going over it in my head; it just didn’t make sense, if small companies could make them without plastic, then so could the big brands.
It began to really frustrate me and I knew something needed to be done to raise awareness and bring about change. I kept thinking ‘what can I as a postal worker really do about this?’ I felt powerless, but had to do something because if I didn’t then who would? The success of other online campaigns compelled me to take a stand against period plastic by starting my own.
Your #EndPeriodPlastic campaign has helped encourage big brands such as Sainsburys, Aldi and Superdrug to remove plastic applicators from their period products. Can you tell us a bit more about the kind of action you’ve taken to motivate these changes?
The campaign takes focused action on one manufacturer or retailer at a time with a clear message, this way it applies more pressure to the targeted decision maker, which they cannot ignore. I ask the campaigns supporters – now over 212,000 people – to get involved by sending them a wave of emails, tweets, and comments on their social media posts. A mixture of the campaigns increasing momentum, actions supported by thousands and my persistence has paid off and led to meetings with decision makers and significant changes being made in the industry.
Beyond eliminating plastic applicators from their products, what are the next steps that these brands can take?
Some brands and retailers have responded by developing and launching their own eco-friendly ranges. This is fantastic and more manufacturers definitely need to take this step, but they must start removing plastic from their conventional ranges, which is what the campaign calls for, rather than just focusing on bringing out new product lines. Most retailers stock a range of eco-friendly tampons, pads, and menstrual cups, in addition, it would be great to see them selling cloth pads and period pants too, so that there is a choice available for everyone.
What are the main reservations and worries that brands and authorities have about eliminating plastics during your meetings with them? How can we overcome these challenges?
The main worry I pick up on is that manufacturers are concerned that by removing plastic, the performance of products will be compromised. They have invested a lot in their current manufacturing processes and are ultimately concerned about losing their market share and profit. These hurdles are being overcome by showing them that being progressive and positive on tackling environmental issues is going to be the new normal. They are going to foster brand loyalty and gain market share by doing the right thing – and doing it now.
In my experience local authorities, especially in Wales, are more open minded and the majority agree with the changes being proposed, they share a keenness to progress, which is very encouraging. We can overcome these challenges by continuing to raise our voices, speaking about the changes that need to be made with MPs and councillors and voting with our money by spending on brands that are forward-thinking.
Based on your experience, how can we work to shift the mindset of our employers and managers to make similar positive changes within the places we work?
The first thing that you want to do is identify like-minded individuals amongst your colleagues, get organised and come up with some suggestions on how to tackle waste within the workplace. Take these suggestions to your managers about how passionate you all are on reducing waste and how this can be achieved. You could do a presentation for your colleagues about plastic pollution or if you work for a big company, contact the environment or sustainability manager with some ideas. If you see something that needs to be changed, raise your voice, and start the conversation, what have you got to lose?
Some brands have recently launched eco-friendly ranges – how safe are these products or should we be solely using the no-plastic brands?
Unfortunately just like any other industry, there is a lot of greenwashing in this sector too. When a decision maker tells me that they are launching their own eco-friendly range, I naturally ask a lot of questions. The ranges that Superdrug and Lil-lets have brought out are eco-friendly, however, if you are in doubt I would definitely opt for an eco-friendly brand over something else. All manufacturers monitor market share, and money being spent on genuinely eco-friendly products is a great way of taking direct action to encourage them to change.
One thing I would say is don’t fall for ‘plant-based’ plastic tampon applicators, both eco-friendly brands and industry giants push them as a ‘green’ alternative, but they aren’t. They behave the same way in the marine-environment and are unnecessary. If you prefer an applicator with a ‘plastic feel’, why not try a reusable one?
Period plastics break down into micro-plastics and fibres, what are the environmental impacts associated with these types of plastics?
There are numerous environmental impacts associated with period products. In the UK they contribute to over 200,000 tonnes of landfill waste each year and they can enter rivers, oceans and end up on beaches when wrongly flushed. It is estimated that 2.5 Million tampons, 1.4 Million Pads and 700,000 pantyliners are flushed in the UK each day, adding up to a whopping 1.5-2 billion per year!
After they are flushed they enter the sewerage system and if they aren’t intercepted at the water treatment works then they end up in our rivers, flow into the sea and wash up on our beaches. This contributes to ocean plastic pollution and has catastrophic effects on marine life and sea birds. 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 from the bottom up.
You’re currently encouraging us all to collect any plastic tampon applicators found polluting our environment – can you tell us more about your plans and how this is going?
Three UK retailers have responded to the campaign and recognised that plastic tampon applicators are an unnecessary use of plastic and have ceased production. This is incredible, however, others are resistant to change and state that “Plastic is what women want”.
I have been asking people to send me plastic applicators as I am constructing something which will be part of focused action happening in the future. This will put further pressure on those who continue to pump out plastic unnecessarily with no consideration of the impacts on the planet.
Your social media, especially your Instagram, is full of colour and a range of art work (including tampon antlers!) – how important do you think artwork is in sharing messages?
I think that artwork and imagery is an important part of activism, it helps you to communicate the issues you are passionate about in a totally different way. It amplifies your message effectively and as they say, “a picture paints a thousand words”.
Have you been able to implement your plastic free period practises into other areas of your lifestyle? Please share your tips!
I have managed to make switches in many parts of my life, but I am not perfect, there is still much more I can do as an individual. For me, the bathroom has been one area where I have made some of my most impactful swaps, like using a reusable razor and cloth make-up pads instead of disposable versions. Another favourite has been moving to shampoo and conditioner bars rather than the bottled kind, another advantage to this is they are natural too!
What are your top tips for online/remote campaigning and activism?
My first tip would be to never give up, sometimes there can be ups and downs, but persistence and passion always pays off. Do not be afraid to ask questions and send emails even if you don’t think you’ll get a response. It has happened to me before and you may be surprised with who gets back to you, you won’t lose anything by trying.
Connect with like-minded individuals and set up regular chats with activists and campaigners that you share interests with. Having a support network you trust is invaluable and important.
Go for it! Sure, you’ll make mistakes along the way, we all do, but if you can see something that is wrong and needs to change, raise your voice and take action.
What are your three favourite songs to play when working on your campaigns? We are making a litter picking playlist!
Laura Branigan – Gloria
Tom Jones – It’s not unusual
Taylor Swift – Shake it off