World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2023: Are small-scale incinerators a good idea?

Lack of monitoring and emission of harmful gases like dioxins and furans within poorly designed, substandard toilets are major risks posed by small-scale incinerators  

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 30 May 2023

Menstrual Hygiene day is observed on the 28th day of the fifth month of the year (May 28) because menstrual cycles average 28 days in length and people menstruate an average of five days each month.

Poor menstrual health and hygiene undercuts fundamental rights — including the right to work and go to school — for women, girls and people who menstruate. Keeping this in mind, the theme for this year was — “Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030.”

But, menstrual awareness needs to be accompanied with “environmental consciousness" which means making menstrual health and products ‘greener’.

India generates nearly 12 billion disposable sanitary napkins every year, typically made from polypropylene and superabsorbent polymer powder (sodium polyacrylate).

As a result, the management and safe disposal of sanitary waste consisting of soiled disposable napkins is challenging for all the urban local bodies in India. Sanitary pads’ disposal can be done by deep burial, pit disposal, and thermal treatment (incineration).

The most convenient and commonly adopted method for commercial establishments is through locally made small-scale incinerator plants. Cities like Pune and Bengaluru and states like Goa have installed small-scale sanitary waste incinerators in schools and colleges.

Last year, the Delhi government announced the installation of sanitary napkin incinerators with smoke control units in toilet blocks for girls in 550 Municipal Corporation of Delhi schools.

The European Waste Incineration Directive recommends incinerators reach a temperature of at least 850°C for at least two seconds to ensure full breakdown of toxic substances.

But, in most of the locally made incinerator plants, combustion takes place at relatively lower temperature. Dioxin formation happens in a temperature range of 200 to 800°C with a maximum reaction rate reached between 350 to 400°C.

A mix of chlorine and plastic in disposable pads, when burned, releases extremely hazardous carcinogenic gases including dioxin furans when burnt at low temperatures.

Dioxin and furans are toxic and bio-accumulative which means that they are able to move up the food chain in nature. Chronic exposure to harmful gases could be disastrous for the girls and women who use these toilets on a regular basis.

Therefore, it is highly recommended that incinerators should not be installed in closed rooms or toilet blocks where the risk of emissions being generated into the room is high.

The outlet pipe (vent stack) should lead outside the room to an appropriate height and away from people. According to the Solid Waste Management Rules (2016) and CPCB guidelines, an incinerator facility should be installed at least 500 metres away from a residential area.

This contradicts the installation of decentralised small-scale incinerators in schools and colleges. Preferably, the centralised bio-medical waste incinerators at CBWTFs (common bio-medical waste treatment facilities) where the waste is burnt at high temperature (900 degrees C) ensures complete combustion of the waste.

However, there are only 208 CBWTFs in the country. It is important to note that disposable napkins are 90 per cent plastics which are typically non-biodegradable in nature and can persist in nature for hundreds of years.

Less polluting options include menstrual cups and reusable cloths.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to switch to sustainable menstruation which is all about being aware of the negative environmental impacts of disposable sanitary products which eventually contributes to plastic waste generation and ends up in our oceans and landfills.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.