Martha Silcott was sitting on the toilet one day when she had a eureka moment. She was on her period and had in the past flushed her tampons down the toilet. However, she had read an article which described how doing so was a major cause of blocked toilets and how many tampons end up washed up on beaches.
So her only option was to wrap her tampon in toilet paper and find a bin to put it in. “I thought how ridiculous this was. I was a senior person in a suit and heels and there was I was wrapping a tampon in toilet paper,” she says.
She had young children and had considered using nappy sacks, but that didn’t seem the best solution. So she started researching if there was someone who had come up with a better one. No-one had.
That was the germ for the idea that has become the FabLittleBag – an attractively designed, biodegradable bag for used sanitary products, which is now on sale in Waitrose, Ocado and on Amazon.
It seems an obvious idea, given so many women must have found themselves in a similar position to Martha in toilets with overfull or no bins, so why has no-one come up with it before? She says manufacturers don’t seem to think disposal is an issue for women. She thinks that’s because they have not asked the right questions and because many in the industry are men who “have never known the panic you feel when you are in the toilet and there are only two pieces of toilet paper left and no bin”.
The main problem , though, is that the whole subject of periods, and particularly the disposal of sanitary products, is embarrassing. That includes, she says, the fact that periods can change after you have children. “If we could talk about it it wouldn’t come as such a shock, but anything about periods and tampon disposal is taboo. It takes a frustrated individual who is determined by nature to tackle it,” she says.
And she has definitely been determined.
Years in the making
Martha accidentally fell into financial services after university. She ran her own business as a financial adviser and worked in the corporate world working on innovative projects for several years. From the late 90’s, though, she had the seed of the idea for FabLittleBag in her head.
After her eureka moment on the toilet she took 18 months mulling over the idea. She decided the bag had to be able to be opened with one hand as the other hand would be holding the tampon. She hit on the idea of the sunglasses case that you squeeze to open, but how could she make it seal up? The problem was lying at the back of her mind for a while before one day she hit on how to do it and started running around the kitchen and creating a “Blue Peter” prototype with nappy velcro and sandwich bags.
Then life got in the way. Martha’s husband decided to retrain and she became the main breadwinner in the family. Six years passed until her situation changed. She decided to apply for a patent for the FabLittleBag. It took seven years to arrive. During that time she travelled around the country visiting manufacturers, but couldn’t find one that would take on the job. Then came the 2008 crash. By 2013 Martha was on the point of giving up when she was told she had won the patent for the bag and its innovative finger loops for opening and closing it.
That gave her a new impetus and focus. She soon found a manufacturer, but in the end they couldn’t make the bags as they required a special machine. She found another and set to work learning about bioplastics, branding and marketing.
Martha called in lots of favours from friends and financed the development through a second mortgage. She approached water companies, mentioning the blockage problem [60% of women flush their tampons, she says, while dealing with blockages caused by this and other things such as wipes costs water companies millions]. She presented the FabLittleBag as a solution. Three companies responded – Anglian, Severn Trent and Welsh Water – and have been giving out the bags at community events. Having the water companies backing her made it easier to get Waitrose and others on board.
Martha is now focusing on raising awareness about disposal issues, promoting the FabLittleBag brand and getting people to talk about periods more openly. She has already run into some unexpected politics with mooncupping fans, but says she doesn’t believe that using a menstrual cup is for everyone. She is keen to offer women a practical solution using natural, biodegradable products, that “takes about awkwardness and embarrassment and replaces them with confidence and control”.
Plans for the future
She is about to launch a campaign #screwthetaboo to make talking about periods normal. “We shouldn’t have to talk about them in a hushed whisper,” she says. “I will feel that my work is done when we can talk openly about periods. Periods are a direct indication that our bodies are functioning normally, yet nothing positive is said about them. They are painful, embarrassing and awkward.”
She is keen that the #screwthetaboo campaign is humorous as she says humour is a vital tool for making people feel comfortable about discussing periods.
Martha, who is mum to two boys, would also like to involve men and boys in the campaign. “A lot of the embarrassment comes from how women think men view periods and mood swings. They need to understand that periods do not turn us into freaks, that women are running companies and getting on with life every day of the month,” she says. She hopes to do a roundtable event with boys and men talking about periods.
She is also keen to launch an ambassador scheme with university students. They would be given the FabLittleBag to sell at discount prices and in return for selling it would learn how to run their own business.
Other plans include a slightly bigger sized bag for larger sanitary towels and business to business discussions with, for instance, those in the hotel industry. She hopes eventually to get into primary schools as she says girls are starting their periods earlier and earlier and there is little room for bins in primary school toilets.
Martha is also keen to have a section of her website devote to period nightmares. “People have been referring to me as the period whisperer,” she says. “It is cathartic for people to tell me stuff that they have never been able to share. It’s like therapy. I want women to be able to speak more openly about it and not to feel like it is something they have to hide.”