Human waste

Arguably the most stigmatised form of bodily waste in many cultures is menstrual blood. It wasn’t until 1985 that the word ‘period’ was first spoken in a TV advert, and the depiction of menstrual blood in advertising is still disconcertingly blue. Many products promising discretion or sanitising natural bodily smells continue to reinforce the taboo surrounding menstruation, and this has an impact on how sanitary products are disposed of. The Women’s Environmental Network’s Environmenstrual campaign advocating reusable sanitary protection highlights the amount of plastic in sanitary products (up to 90 per cent of a menstrual pad and 6 per cent of a tampon), which makes the products unsuitable for flushing (the most ‘discreet’ method of disposal for someone ashamed or self-conscious of their period). Nevertheless, 17,000 tonnes of sewage-related debris, much of which includes tampons, pads and applicators (as well as ‘perfumed’ wipes increasingly used as a substitute for toilet paper by those self-conscious about natural body smells), ends up on beaches in the UK each year (Womens Environmental Network, 2018); 183,000 tonnes is landfilled or incinerated.

The UK Period Dignity campaign is also concerned with enabling women to manage their menstruation confidently, and Chapter 4 highlighted how poverty can have long-lasting impacts on young women from both the global North and the global South who miss school because they cannot afford commercial sanitary products. The issue of dignity is also raised in connection with the provision of toilet privacy. According to the charity WaterAid, one in three girls and women worldwide don’t have a decent toilet at home, which increases the risk of violence when they have to go to the toilet outside. Linked to her concern about the under-provision of public toilets for women, Clara Greed writes about the poor ‘design of toilet facilities and the overall cultural awkwardness about addressing women’s intimate toilet needs which so infects the sanitation, engineering and development professions’ (2015: 1). Since women have more need for toilets, because of menstruation and, while caring responsibilities largely fall to them, it is difficult to justify the imbalance in gendered provision. The current debate about gendered access to public toilet facilities in the global North has become heated as more facilities are converted to be gender-neutral in order to provide access to appropriate toilet facilities for trans and non-binary people. However, simply changing previously single-sex toilets to all genders can create, at best, embarrassment, and at worst, unsafe areas for women and girls to manage their bodily waste. And in practice, men’s urinals cannot be made accessible to women, so the imbalance remains (Ramster et al., 2018). Greed’s work internationally has also addressed the hygiene issues of poor public sanitation worldwide and the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls.


Chemical pollution has a profound effect on bodies as previous chapters have argued. Some of this pollution comes from sanitary protection, for example the nano-silver which is being added to reusable sanitary wear to ‘neutralise’ body smells. This can pass through the skin to bioaccumulate in the wearer’s body. Once it enters the waste stream it is flushed into rivers where it is ingested by fish for whom it is highly toxic. Fish have also been affected by increased levels of oestrogen in streams and rivers, and some scientists are suggesting that not only does this affect the gender of fish, and their fertility, but that it may be affecting human fertility also.

In research into the impact of waste work for the World Bank, Sandra Cointreau has revealed that waste work itself has a gendered impact on bodies, with 38 per cent of women waste pickers having lost one child and 10 per cent losing three or more. The main causes of these infant deaths were diarrhoea, tetanus, smallpox, bronchitis and viral infections (Cointreau, 2006). Fredericks also identified the frequency of infection and disease amongst the animatrices she studied in Senegal (Fredericks, 2012).

In the USA, disposal of waste to ‘Superfund’ sites - hazardous waste sites for which a ‘super fund’ of money has been set aside by Congress to clean them up - has been found to have a disproportionate impact on African-American, First Nation American and Hispanic communities, more than half of whom live within one mile of a Superfund site. From the late 1950s to late 1980s, 750 million tons of toxic chemical wastes were discarded in the USA, and this has been an influential spur to the environmental justice movement. In state counties in which contaminated ground water was the only source of drinking water, men had significantly higher mortality from cancers of the lung, bladder, oesophagus, colon and stomach, while women experienced higher mortality from lung, breast, bladder, colon, and stomach cancers. Women living in counties with Superfund hazardous waste sites were 6.5 times more likely to have elevated breast cancer rates than those in counties without (Steingraber, 2010/

Waste behaviour as embodied practice

Gay Hawkins proposes that government campaigns to ‘reuse, reduce and recycle’ have implications for our bodies. How we change our practices and habits ‘shape how our bodies feel’ (2006: 5). This may involve Jane Jacobs’s morning garbage ritual, or integrating regular visits to the compost bin, charity shop or municipal waste disposal site. It may involve changing practices of how to waste less food, which can include eating what might previously have been wasted or altering diets. It may also involve practices of protest. Chapter 4 has discussed Wendy Harcourt’s positioning of bodies as ‘sites of contestation in a series of...struggles’. Gendered protest about excessive plastic packaging or regressive charges for refuse collection have been mentioned above. Women have been at the forefront of environmental justice protest in the USA, particularly where their own bodies and those of their children or neighbours are at risk from discarded wastes. Lois Gibbs’s community leadership in fighting chemical pollution in the Love Canal area, described in Chapter 2 is a powerful example of this. Another is African American, Margie Eugene-Richard who fought a 30-year campaign against chemical pollution in ‘Cancer Alley’ - a stretch of 125 oil and chemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge (Sze, 2018). Julie Sze also writes about the increasing focus on how our bodies are imbricated with our environments in her analysis of North American gendered and environmental justice movements, which protest the impact of pollution from chemical waste, specifically on the bodies of mothers and children.

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