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Once a month (Puerto Rico)

YRE Competition 2020

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What things happen once a month? We usually see the full moon once a month. Some people get their salary once a month. But do you know what happens to all women once a month? Menstruation, our period. This topic has always been a taboo in our society. Talking about menstruation is never something we feel comfortable with, and discussing all the menstrual waste we produce in just a few days each month, can be even harder. According to the United Nations (UN), on average, women who use menstrual pads are equivalent to 60 kilograms of waste from this product during their lifetime. We can infer that tons and tons of menstrual pads and tampons end up in our landfills daily. Currently, there are more sustainable, economic, and healthy alternatives that allow us to avoid disposable menstrual products.

The Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), organization created in 1995, has the mission of amplifying women’s voices to eliminate the toxic chemicals that harm our health and communities. According to this organization, research shows that many of today’s menstrual and vaginal care products contain a host of chemicals that may cause cancer, disrupt hormones, or cause unnecessary allergic reactions. Some of these chemicals include styrene, chloromethane, chloroethane, chloroform, among others. More alarming, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)— the USA government agency responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human drugs, biological products, and medical devices— does not require companies to test for all harmful chemicals. Moreover, the FDA does not require manufacturers to disclose ingredients to consumers. This situation presents a serious problem considering that the skin of the genitalia area tends to be thinner and more absorbent than other parts of the body, making it a sensitive area. The regulation of the chemicals used in menstrual products is crucial since they remain in contact with external genitalia for extended periods allowing the absorption of possibly harmful chemicals into the reproductive system.

In recent years, the topic of reducing single-use plastics has been a worldwide trend. Still, when it comes to this topic, disposable menstrual products are never mentioned and often not even considered a source of single-use plastic. The reality is that most disposable menstrual products contain a large percentage of plastics. Tampons usually are made from cotton or rayon, but sometimes include a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part and an outer layer of synthetic fiber (polyethylene and polypropylene) to prevent fiber loss and create a smoother surface, according to Elizabeth Peberdy, a researcher at the Anglia Ruskin University. They are also wrapped in plastic and come with their plastic applicator. On the other hand, Peberdy establishes that the menstrual pads are made up of various layers: a permeable top layer made of a polymer such as polypropylene or polyethylene; an absorbent layer made of cellulose; an inner core of “superabsorbent polymer” or “smart foam” and a lower layer of polyethylene. Due to the complexity of the materials with which these products are made, it is estimated that a regular menstrual pad or tampon can take 500–800 years to break down in landfills. According to Peberdy, these estimations of degradation are based on respirometry tests in lab conditions. In reality, what actually happens to these products in landfill could be very different, referring to the possibility that there are materials that, by their nature, cannot be decomposed under landfill conditions.

Starting from the fact that 1.9 billion women globally are in their menstruating age, we should divert our attention to more sustainable and eco-friendly ways to manage our period. On average, women spend 2,400 days throughout a lifetime dealing with menstrual blood flow. This is equivalent to six and a half years. The most common eco-friendly friendly product options are organic tampons and menstrual pads, reusable pads, menstrual cups, and period underwear. Organic pads and tampons are made of organic cotton so that they can be composted. They can also be discarded with regular garbage since organic cotton decomposes much faster than the materials of regular disposable options. Reusable options such as the menstrual cup, reusable pads, and period underwear have the advantage of lasting for years. Pads and underwear last 3 to 5 years, with proper care, and usually are made of natural fibers such as cotton and bamboo. On the other hand, the menstrual cup is made with medical-grade silicone and usually lasts from 3 to 10 years, depending on the brand. Despite the many challenges these options face, such as high prices, poor accessibility, and poor education for women on the subject, more and more women are willing to make the change.

Research conducted on the public awareness of the environmental impact of menstrual products showed that most women are not aware of the ecological implications of these products. However, they also showed that women who are aware tend to make better decisions about the menstrual products they consume. In Puerto Rico, “More women want to make the change, some for fashion, others for empowerment and awareness,” said Valeria Solero, the creator of the reusable menstrual pads brand Manchada. (V. Solero, phone communication, June 11, 2020). Solero mentioned that, aside from helping the planet, since you avoid generating more garbage, switching to reusable menstrual pads helps us avoid “many toxic chemicals that significantly affect our health and body, causing allergies, infections, and diseases.” She also suggests that another important benefit is saving money, since “you make an initial investment and with proper washing and care can last 3-5 years,” avoiding the monthly purchase of products.  

In the middle of the 21st century, menstruation and its management are still hard to discuss due to the lack of education. We must stop seeing it as something terrible and disgusting and start viewing it as a beautiful biological process. The change to more sustainable options is not only beneficial for the earth, but also for your health and pocket. The world is waiting for you.

Author: Antoinette Cedeño

Residents demand better used clothes recycling (Slovakia)

YRE Competition 2020

In Spišská Nová Ves, residents can recycle used clothes through collection containers. However, these containers are often targets of looting and vandalism. The city is dealing with this problem by reducing the number of containers. Residents are still looking for ways to give unwanted clothing a second chance.

Have you ever wondered about the long and difficult path your clothes underwent until they arrived in your closet? From planting cotton to transporting the clothes to the store, it is months of work, huge amounts of water and energy, and thousands of miles traveled. Nevertheless, 5.8 million tonnes of clothing are thrown away in the European Union every year. Of this huge amount, only a fraction is recycled, and the rest goes to the landfill. There are many ways to recycle "old" textiles. Donate clothes to friends, charity, or an orphanage, or make new products out of them, such as a bag or toy for a dog. Special collection containers for clothing are available to those who do not have anyone to donate their clothes to.

(Un)successful placement of collection containers

Early 2012, special containers for clothing were placed in the town of Spišská Nová Ves. A total of almost 30 collection containers were placed throughout the city. The containers are managed by the local branch of the Polish company Pphu wtórpol, which supplies used clothing stores, exports some clothes to Africa and Asia, and processes the rest into various products. As early as 2014, however, the first complications and complaints associated with these collection containers appeared in Spišská Nová Ves. "The worst part is that what they don't like is thrown aside. They make a mess around the containers," wrote a resident on the Link website for the mayor.

Ing. Juraj Sad, PhD ., the then head of the municipal service department, said, "The city warned the operator about the repeated looting of clothing. As a result bars were welded onto the containers to restrict access." The situation recently culminated in the removal of several containers. Ing. Slavomír Krieger from the municipal service department said, “Containers were removed from some places. They were withdrawn by the city due to vandalism or at the request of citizens.” He also said that the city does not plan to return the containers, despite the fact that no new cases of vandalism or looting of containers have been officially recorded in the last 6 months.

Citizens versus the city

A survey of the city's residents by 16-year-old student Ľudmila confirmed that they are interested in moving their clothes along, but they do not like looting. Of the 400 inhabitants that took part in the survey, 41% stated that they use collection containers for recycling clothing. The amount of clothing collected per year also corresponds to the high rate of use. In 2019, it was 78.13 tonnes. The containers are emptied approximately eight times a year. One very startling finding was that three-quarters of the residents surveyed had recently witnessed looting and damage to a container or noticed scattered clothing around the collection bins.

The city is not currently considering improving the clothing collection service, such as changing companies, securing containers better, or placing containers in a collection yard. Ing. Juraj Sad explains, "The city does not plan to expand the number of containers. The existing company is now probably the only somewhat functional clothing collection company in eastern Slovakia. "

A second chance for clothes

Of course, Spišská Nová Ves is not the only town in Slovakia in which collection containers for clothing are not working out well. What could inspire city council? In Trenčín, the so-called “social wardrobe”, located in the city’s economy building, has been operating since 2013. The “social wardrobe” is managed by a group of volunteers. Donors can bring clothes, shoes, toys as well as household equipment and furniture. These donations can be picked up every Wednesday by socially disadvantaged residents.

Improvement of the used clothing collection service in Spišská Nová Ves is unlikely to happen in the near future. However, the residents’ willingness to donate clothes is great: 90% of those approached would be interested in donating their used clothes. Some proposed their own initiatives at the end of the questionnaire.

I would suggest organizing a collection of clothes on a regular basis. People would always bring their used clothes in bags on a specific date to a designated place. Usable pieces could be donated to Spišská Charity or to an orphanage, and the remaining blankets and sheets could go to the animal shelter for dogs and cats ", suggested an anonymous survey participant. Another inhabitant of the city wrote, “Young people like to change wardrobes. They wear one piece of clothing only a few times. Organizing a piece-by-piece clothing exchange would certainly please many. "

One thing is certain. The residents of Spišská Nová Ves want to recycle their old clothes, but the city has not yet offered them an official alternative to collection containers, and according to the staff at the municipal office, it is not planning to make any changes. However, if the city decides to respond to citizens' suggestions and the importance of this issue, it will receive a positive and very active response.

Bad look, poor function

Unfortunately, this mess around the collection container, after it’s been looted, is not an exception in housing estates.

Unfortunately, this mess around the collection container, after it’s been looted, is not an exception in housing estates.

An invitation to loot

Overflowing used clothes containers in Spišská Nová Ves are often subject to looting.

Overflowing used clothes containers in Spišská Nová Ves are often subject to looting.

Good example from Trenčín

The social wardrobe with its founder - otília divilková. Photo credit: Erik Stopka

The social wardrobe with its founder - otília divilková. Photo credit: Erik Stopka

Authors: Ľudmila Slivová and Timea Dimitrovová

Toxic Finger Food (Slovakia)

YRE Competition 2020

Cigarette butts are the most common type of garbage in cities and nature. Throwing them to the ground is considered to be a common and safe way to dispose of this waste. The team of pupils from Cirkevná základná škola Narnia hit the streets of Bratislava and explored how to minimize the most overlooked disposable plastic.

The students asked people in Bratislava whether they were bothered by cigarette butts on the ground. Many see cigarette butts as a "normal" part of the street. Many consider them to be an "aesthetic problem". They believe that discarded cigarette butts will decompose over time and disappear.

Member of the European (MEP) Martin Hojsík told the students that there was more to this:

"I think people notice the problem of streets littered with cigarette butts, but they overlook the fact that, like straws or shopping bags, cigarette butts are a disposable plastic." 

Hojsík considers raising awareness of this problem to be a great first step to changing the situation.

A “small” problem

The problem has two levels. Cigarette butts, littering the streets and nature, are made of plastic. Also, when burned they absorb substances from tobacco and become toxic so, when they are thrown away, they contain several harmful substances. At best they end up in municipal waste, at worst they are dumped on the ground. They are the most overlooked disposable plastic in the ecosystem. The chemicals are released into soil when they come into contact with water. The students collected cigarette butts from 1 m² and soaked them in water. The water changed color and became a dark brown, smelly leachate. 

According to research, when three butts are added into a one litre aquarium with a fish, the fish dies within 24 hours. Watering seeds of shamrocks with this water would result in 30% less of them sprouting than the same sample watered with normal water. MEP Hojsík gave this answer:

The filters in the butts are made of cellulose acetate, which is actually plastic. When the cigarette is smoked, they absorb substances in the tobacco, and therefore this plastic contains nicotine, heavy metals and other chemicals. So, it´s also about serious pollution.”

Only 3.5% cigarettes have filters which decompose in nature, due to costs. While plastic bottles and bags are taxed and straws are being replaced, no one notices butts.

It’s not enough to protect non-smokers

Students noticed during their research that butts are mainly found near bus stops. Their first step was to create a campaign to increase awareness of this problem. They discovered that there is one trash can at their bus stop near the school, but there is no ash tray. Smoking near bus stops is forbidden. This is highlighted with pictograms, signs, and bus-stop area is monitored by camera. Smokers go to smoke behind bus stops, out of the camera’s view. When they finish smoking they throw their butt on the ground. 

According to the town council of Bratislava, dropping cigarettes butts on the ground is a violation and fines can be as high as 33€. In 2019 city police issued fines for 1295 offenses of cleanliness laws in public locations. This number includes cigarettes and other forms of pollution.

Students act

Students contacted the city with a proposal that bus stops should have a special bin for cigarettes 5 m away. The distance would be marked by footsteps on the ground and be marked for smokers. Similar social experiments have been done before and were effective. This was a children´s initiative in Bratislava, but the city didn’t support it, so they created a mini campaign. 

They marked one square meter and cleaned it. There were 131 cigarette butts. Over a month 184 cigarette butts were collected over repeated cleaning dates (an experiment in Cambridge collected 128 butts in 1 m²). At the bus stop they marked cigarette butts in the 1 m² with „canapes“ flags. When people asked what it was about, the cigarettes became very evident.

Problem with no solution?

The students did not give up and informed the Magistrate about the results of their experiment of collecting cigarette butts at the bus stop. They added facts about the collection of butts at other bus stops. For example, near Aupark there were 10-times more cigarette butts than at the experimental bus stop. They inquired about how the bus stops were cleaned. Mr. Peter Bubla from the mayor’s office said, that the cigarette butts are disposed of by Dopravný podnik Bratislava (public transit) along with the communal waste collected at the bus stops. According to him, it is not possible to place waste bins with ashtrays at bus stops, because it is prohibited by law to smoke there. The most frequented bus stops are cleaned several times per day.

The problem seemed too complicated, so the students asked the MEP if he was aware of possible solutions. He used the example of Japan, where there is an absolute ban of throwing cigarette butts on the ground. There are separate zones reserved for smoking and often there are campaigns, motivating people to dispose of their butts in designated places. Smokers in Japan use private ashtrays in which they collect the cigarette butts and then empty them in trash cans. This doesn’t address the problem of decomposition and recycling. 

Better legislation could help

The key to solve the problem is to change legislation. Individuals do not have enough power or the right tools, like the European Parliament has.

Cigarette butts can be defined as the most overlooked single-use plastic in the world. This fact inspires the students to go on with the project. Even though, according to the city council, marking smoking areas at bus stops is not realistic, the students believe that once they meet with the mayor, they will find a solution.

Cigarette butts covering the ground behind the monitored bus stop area. Photo: Patrik Poltársky.

Cigarette butts covering the ground behind the monitored bus stop area.

Photo: Patrik Poltársky.

Pupils made a mini-campaign at the stop. They marked cigarette butts with colored flags for canapés. Photo: Patrik Poltársky

Pupils made a mini-campaign at the stop. They marked cigarette butts with colored flags for canapés. Photo: Patrik Poltársky

Hundreds of people pass by them every day, but they only started to notice them when students marked them. Photo: Leo Klein, bus stop Budatínska, Bratislava

Hundreds of people pass by them every day, but they only started to notice them when students marked them.

Photo: Leo Klein, bus stop Budatínska, Bratislava

Authors: Michaela Hermanová, Leo Klein, Emil Slimák, Patrik Poltársky