Castles: Sanitary product receptacles are a public health necessity

An illustration of a menstrual product disposal bin overflowing in a public bathroom. Gilbert Hall Addition—a building at Oregon State University’s Corvallis campus—has had several issues with accessible disposal of menstrual products, according to fourth-year chemistry student Sarah Gernhart. 

Christine Castles, Columnist

Editor’s Note: This column does not represent the opinion of The Daily Barometer. This column reflects the personal opinions of the writer.

When you walk into Gilbert Hall on Oregon State University’s Corvallis campus, you may notice the portraits of the department of chemistry that line the hall. You may also notice how few women there are.

If you happen to continue walking into Gilbert Hall Addition and into any of the women’s bathrooms, you may still find yourself reminded of the male-dominated world you live in when you are looking for a place to put your bloody sanitary products and cannot find one anywhere. 

Fourth-year chemistry student, Sarah Gernhart, first noticed the stall she was using did not have any receptacles in April of this year. 

She said her first reaction was thinking “I am crazy, I have to take a picture of this stall.” But after checking the other bathrooms, she found none in the entire building.

After calling facilities to ask where they were, Gernhart was told “It was an ongoing process.” 

Later on, Gernhart found in two of the four bathrooms bins placed outside the stalls that were labeled “Sanitary Napkins Only.” 

Gernhart then contacted OSU’s Office of the President which replied to her that they were going to talk to Joseph Majeski, the director of Facilities Services, who later informed her that the receptacles had been ordered and would be installed immediately.

This was the same message I was told when I contacted the president’s office in July, over three months after Gernhart originally contacted facilities.

She said she felt “discouraged when it felt like no one was doing anything about it.”

Since I first reached out about this issue, the sanitary product receptacles have been installed in Gilbert Hall Addition, but many questions still remain, especially why was this a problem in the first place?

I talked to Majeski to help find the answer. He first found out the receptacles were missing when the president’s office reached out to him, after which an order was finally placed to purchase receptacles for the bathrooms.

Majeski said the receptacles were usually stocked, but after moving storage buildings, they found that they had to order more. This process was then slowed by supply complications and COVID-19 delays.

He did, however, look inside the bathrooms to see what the situation really looked like. That was when he found the two bins outside the stalls. Majeski also found that no holes had ever been drilled in the stalls for the receptacles to be replaced.

So the most likely explanation for their absence? They were never installed in the first place.

“That is I’m sure that’s what happened,” Majeski said.

Of course, the specific chain of events that caused them to never be installed will probably never be known. This makes it difficult to find assurance that it will not happen again.

Majeski instructed his staff to be vigilant about the receptacles as they rotate through all the campus buildings to ensure no other bathrooms are lacking in the sanitary receptacles. 

Yet, if the bathrooms have not had the sanitary receptacles for many years, why did staff never notice?

Sanitary receptacles are supplied with bags where products are put, and these bags have to be replenished as they are used, just like when a soap dispenser is replenished as it is used. So if one’s job is to refill a bin, and every women’s bathroom has a bin, would it not be noticed when a bathroom has no bin to be refilled? If there were no soap dispensers to refill?

Throughout my search to find what went wrong with the receptacles, I was repeatedly told that if you notice an issue with a building to contact facilities who can take further action. Except facilities were contacted and essentially nothing was done.

I was also told on many occasions that with over 100 buildings, issues are going to arise, which is why OSU relies on its community members to point out these issues so that they can be amended. 

But if community members point out these issues using the recommended process, nothing happens, so the idea of reliance on community merely deflects accountability away from OSU.

Majeski said, “We look at this as more of a training opportunity [and] an information sharing opportunity.” 

As frustrating as it may be that it is necessary to require training and learning about standard sanitation practices, hopefully these attitudes will help prevent similar issues in the future.

It is important to remember sanitary product receptacles are a matter of public health. The closer to the toilet the receptacles are, the less chance there is for the passage of disease from place to place. 

Not to mention from a subjective perspective that carrying around used sanitary products to look for a disposal bin feels gross and undignifying.

Thinking about how people would perceive her if she carried around a used sanitary product to find a place to dispose of it, Gernhart said, “I would be terrified; people would probably think I am gross.”

In January of 2015, an Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility survey was taken of the Gilbert Hall Addition, which included pictures of the stalls that, of course, had no sanitary receptacle bins. 

Despite examining the distance off the ground other equipment were, and how close to the handrail the toilet paper dispenser was, there was no mention of the missing receptacles. 

In OSU’s ADA construction standards, there is no specific mention of sanitary receptacles even though there is a specific range of heights and positions that any other equipment found in stalls should be found at. 

If you need equipment to be at a certain distance from the toilet in order for it to be accessible, the equipment not being there is not accessible. 

The missing receptacles are only part of a larger issue where people who have periods do not have access to hygiene products and safe ways to dispose of them. 

The same bathrooms that did not have receptacles also did not have functioning tampon and pad dispensers nor do the vast majority of public restrooms that I have ever walked into. Even if they are functioning properly, it is unlikely that they are even kept stocked. 

People who have periods are only asking for a basic sanitary way to dispose of their used products, something that will also help to protect everybody from diseases, which should be found especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There also needs to be accountability when sanitation is not available and the problem is not addressed as soon as it is discovered. Community involvement is great, but OSU needs to take responsibility when sanitary equipment can not be found in an entire building.

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