Is green menstruation possible?

One sanitary pad could take 500 to 800 years to decompose as the plastic used is non-biodegradable and can lead to health and environmental hazards 

By Swati Singh Sambyal, Sonia Henam, Fiola Tariang
Published: Wednesday 29 May 2019

You roll it, chuck it, sparing a little thought on what will happen to sanitary pads after use. About 336 million girls and women experience menstruation in India, out of which approximately 121 million use disposable sanitary napkins.

Nearly 70 per cent of women living in urban India use sanitary pads compared to 48 per cent women in rural India. If we roughly take the number of sanitary pads used per menstrual cycle as eight, over 12.3 billion disposable sanitary pads are generated every year. The disposal of such plastic pads have become a huge concern.

According to Menstrual Health Alliance India, one sanitary pad could take 500 to 800 years to decompose as the plastic used is non-biodegradable and can lead to health and environmental hazards. Considering 36 per cent of the menstruating females use sanitary napkins, their environmental footprint is high. Most of these pads have over 90 per cent plastics and each pad is an equivalent to four plastic bags. Data on menstrual waste management from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) shows that 28 per cent of such pads are thrown with routine waste, 28 per cent are thrown in open, 33 per cent are disposed via burial and 15 per cent are burnt openly.

In a scenario, where safe menstruation for every female is imperative, the debate over sustainable menstruation is still far.

Handling of sanitary waste in India

According to the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016, every waste generator must segregate waste into three fractions — wet, dry and domestic hazardous waste. Every household needs to ensure that sanitary waste should be properly wrapped. The rules say that sanitary waste should be kept in the dry waste bin and should be handed over separately.

The rules also mandate the manufacturers or brand-owners of sanitary pads to work with local authorities on providing necessary financial assistance to set up waste management systems for sanitary waste. Also, they need to ensure that they set up collection systems to take back the packaging waste of their products, educate as well as create awareness on proper disposal of such pads.

However, nothing of this sort has happened on the ground. There is no uniform way to dispose such pads so that they are identifiable. In most of the cases, it is disposed in bins even without wrapping. The waste collector separates this waste from other household waste with bare hands, making them more susceptible to infections and diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. From here, it would either washed into drains or end up in dumpsites. Most of the sanitary pads have Super Adsorbent Polymers (SAPs) such as polyacrylate, which can further lead to water clogging and contamination.

India has very few best practices on sanitary waste management. For instance, Panaji has taken an initiative to collect sanitary waste and hand it over to the common biomedical treatment facility for incineration, however, this has its own issues, as the facility does not have enough capacity. In Kerala, households are educated to give sanitary waste separately, but, again disposal is a challenge. Small scale sanitary incinerators are used in schools and colleges, but how harmful its emissions could be needs to be assessed.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s guideline on Management of Sanitary Waste, 2018, deep burial, composting, pit burning and incineration (low-cost, small-scale, electric and high temperature biomedical incinerators) are some of the methods that should be adopted to dispose such waste. However, the guidelines do not highlight the usage of alternatives to sanitary pads.

Growing shift to cloth

Considering the affordability and environmental impact of sanitary pads, cloth is an effective option. While women have in the past used handmade cloth pads, it is gaining momentum again.

As a matter of fact, there are many small-scale manufacturers and non-profits that are trying to promote reusable sanitary cloth pads and educating women on the benefits of green menstruation.

Goonj’s menstrual hygiene initiative “Not Just a Piece of Cloth”, founded by Anshu Gupta and Meenakshi Gupta, has been working towards breaking the silence surrounding menstruation for almost two decades. Their “MY Pad” initiative was launched in order to make cloth pads more accessible to women. Currently, more than five million cloth pads have been made and distributed across India. This has been made possible by converting old clothes into pads, thus reducing the cost. Goonj has also established a system in cities where households can donate their old worn out clothes to the NGO. The workforce then follows a nine-step system to create the pads from the clothes received. The initiative is successful because it uses cloth as a tool to open up discussions on the issue of menstruation, thus breaking the culture of shame and silence around it and spreading awareness about the health and hygiene issues among women.

Eco Femme began its journey when founder Kathy Walking moved to India from Australia and experienced the problem of disposing her sanitary pads. Burying them each time proved to be a tiresome method while discarding them in the trash was not “eco- friendly”.  While traveling, Kathy came across cloth pads and discovered its myriad benefits. Thus, she started producing these washable cloth pads for women in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. Unlike disposable sanitary napkins, they can be washed and re-used for years and they are made of natural material — cotton — that is biodegradable and also healthy for women’s bodies.

Another is Kamakhya, an initiative in Udaipur started by Laad Lohar, an Adivasi woman nine years ago. When asked about why she started Kamakhya, she conveyed that she was unable to attain her education due to her periods; not wanting the same fate for the adolescent, menstruating girls in her village, she set out to design and create cloth pads in order to keep them in school during their periods. Lohar fashions these cloth pads during her free time and goes from village to village to teach other Adivasi or disadvantaged women on how to make these pads.

Eco-switch to Cloth?

One always questions whether cloth is a viable option”. For millions of women who cannot access or afford disposable pads, clean cotton cloth is a cheaper option because, it is ecofriendly, accessible, affordable, scalable, reusable and sustainable.

For a big population of women in cities and smaller towns, familiarity, possibility of reuse, sensitivity to price and environmental impact makes cloth a viable option.

However, a debate surrounding the cloth pads is the hygiene and its cost factor.

Cotton cloth pads, when used hygienically are a healthier option as compared to chemical and plastic laden sanitary pads, which often lead to skin allergies. On affordability, if we compare the cost of cloth pad to that of disposable pads, the cost of one cotton pads may be higher than a packet of disposable pads, but one needs to realise that the life cycle cost of cloth pad is way lower than disposables pads.

Way forward

Currently in India, the idea of using reusable cotton pads is still a concern. However, considering that sanitary pad brands take no ownership of the pads and have devised no systems for its management, reusable alternatives such as cloth is a better option. 

Also, policies should be focused on stringent application of menstrual hygiene schemes in urban and rural areas, access to menstrual products, especially in rural areas, extended responsibility by manufacturers of sanitary pads and environmentally safe pilot innovations.

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