Before I left for Nicaragua, I read on the Raleigh packing guide that we should take as many biodegradable products as possible. I decided to do this and set out on the hunt for these illusive items.
‘What is a biodegradable product?’ I thought. Something that decomposes into the ground without a trace I guessed.
I asked in all the big shops, Boots, Superdrug, Savers. Did they know what a biodegradable product was? Almost exclusively, no. Did they sell them, almost exclusively, no.
The health store chains I tried were more clued up about what biodegradable products were available, but also didn’t have anything I wanted. In particular, I was looking for baby wipes realising I would be showering with a bucket for the next ten weeks and asked a lady in Boots.
She was unsure if they sold any and referred me to a supervisor who then looked it to discover they only had one type of biodegradable wipe.
Afterwards I headed to Lush who had all the soaps, shampoos and conditioners I wanted as well as some biodegradable toothpaste (the taste of which took some getting used to!). I came back with two bars of coconut almond oil shampoo which the assistants friend had apparently taken on a trek through the rainforest in Borneo and were 100% environmentally friendly. They were meant to last 100 washes each. The only place I discovered biodegradable tampons and pads was an independent health store in Inverness, nowhere I looked in Glasgow had any.
And on arrival I realised how important they were.
There are no landfills in Nicaragua. Any waste you produce, you burn outside. All of the other female volunteers I spoke to had not brought biodegradable period products which meant either them or a member of their host family would have to burn them outside their house. Not a pleasant experience in the first place, but even worse if they aren’t biodegradable.
Tampons typically have plastic applicators and packaging so when burned, they melt and produce toxic gases. It was not uncommon have a coughing fit while walking past a burning pile of rubbish on the dirt road releasing plumes of black smoke.
For me, the cardboard tampon applicators and the tampons themselves could just be thrown down the long drop and forgotten about. On the occasions I did have to burn them (we were the lucky ones with a ‘real’ toilet which didn’t flush), they burned easily and without the fumes.
My host dad had devised an ingenious way of channeling the water from our washing tank into another pool away from most of the crops using half a bamboo cane lined with black plastic. But as our house was built on a slope, any water containing the chemicals in the washing up powder which leaked from his device, as often happened, flowed directly downhill to be soaked up by mango and mamones fruit trees. Fruits which we would later eat.
We had a drain for our bucket showers but the rest of the volunteers just showered outside behind plastic screens. This meant the chemicals from non-biodegradable products were soaked up by the soil and absorbed by the plants.
My shampoo bar from Lush was by far my best buy. One bar lasted my entire trip (I did wash once or more every day!). It was small and could be used as a soap too, although I also took a big bottle of Sanex Zero which I bought in Boots. I decided on my return that once my shampoos and soaps ran out, I would switch to biodegradable permanently.
I’ve managed reasonably well. The wipes aren’t great for taking make-up off so I’m still on the hunt for some good quality biodegradable face wipes. The lush products you need to keep in a little container so they don’t melt away, but they’re great and worth the effort! Sanex Zero you can buy in many big health stores for as little as £1 and it’s as good for your skin as it is for the environment. I’ve slipped back into old habits in terms of period products but I’m looking into alternatives like the Moon Cup which you can buy online.
Overall I’ve found switching to biodegradable toiletries has had a small impact on my life but I hope it will have a big impact on the environment over the course of my lifetime. If we all make small changes like switching to biodegradable toiletries, these products will become more in demand and widely available. This helps reduce our individual impact on the environment. After all, just because you’re not burning rubbish on your doorstep doesn’t mean it’s not polluting the planet elsewhere.