Disposed sanitary pads and tampons are now a biohazard to the environment. Let us raise awareness about the importance of environmentally friendly and sustainable menstrual practices and products.
When you’re battling with cramps, mood swings, and leaks, it is totally fair if an “eco-friendly period” is just the last thing on your mind. Because let’s face it, periods suck.
It could be a difficult task to look at the bigger picture when you’re waking up to ruined bedsheets, going through the school day in excruciating pain, or staining your best-loved pair of panties. But the products that are supposed to help us are making the environment around us worse by affecting everyone outside of our own vaginas.
Every month, approximately 353 million women and adolescent girls in India use sanitary products and produce menstrual waste, and this figure is growing by the day. So, what exactly is the issue? The problem is how this sanitary waste is disposed of.
We roll it, chuck it, sparing a bit of concept on what’s going to happen to these sanitary pads after use. A single woman can generate up to 125 kg of non-biodegradable waste during her menstrual cycle (the majority of which is plastic). All of this debris is ultimately disposed of in sewers which leads to clogging or pollutes seas, rivers, and beaches. According to studies, one sanitary pad can take anywhere from 500 to 800 years to degrade, all thanks to the non-biodegradable plastic used, posing health and environmental risks. This is the reason why Sanitary Waste disposal is such a pressing issue in the country, that requires quick attention.
The stats for non-biodegradable sanitary waste generation is rather high for developed countries when compared to India. During a beach clean-up in 2016, the Marine Conservation Society in England discovered 20 sanitary items per 100 meters of shoreline.
So, periods aren’t healthy for the environment, but menstruating women rely on sanitary goods month after month. How can we assure that a human need does not kill the planet?
UNDERSTANDING MENSTRUAL WASTE CLASSIFICATION:
The Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI) approximates that, India has 336 million menstruation women, 36 per cent of whom use disposable sanitary napkins – a total of 121 million women. So, depending on the number of sanitary napkins used per menstrual cycle (at a conservative eight), India posses around 12.3 billion disposable sanitary napkins to deal with every year, the bulk of which are not biodegradable/compostable.
Managing menstrual waste in India is undeniably a mammoth task. Ideally, sanitary waste should fall into two categories biomedical waste and plastic. Biomedical waste due to the presence of blood/body fluid and under plastic as it contributes as a major ingredient for disposable sanitary waste.
But, in India, sanitary waste management is complex and in a complete imbroglio. The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules defined and categorized “sanitary waste” for the first time in the year 2016.
According to SWM 2016, sanitary waste has been classified as non-hazardous “dry municipal waste” which can be disposed off in household dustbins and could be further segregated as biodegradable and non-biodegradable at a collection centre. Sanitary waste includes wastes comprising of used diapers, sanitary towels or napkins, tampons, condoms and incontinence sheets which is handled by waste collectors with bare hands mostly, exposing them to health risks.
AN ECO- SWITCH TO SUSTAINABLE MENSTURATION:
Sanitary pads are the most popular amongst menstrual hygiene products in the country owing to their affordability, ease of use and awareness through advertisements. In urban areas, around 52% of women use sanitary napkins. Most of the sanitary pads have Super Adsorbent Polymers (SAPs) such as polyacrylate, which is non-biodegradable and leads to water clogging and contamination.
Intrinsically, our favoured period product might contain up to 90% plastic (polyethene, polypropylene, and polyester), which is the equivalent of four plastic shopping bags in one pad. Over the course of a lifetime, each person can generate 44,000 bags of period-related plastic garbage.
The term “Sustainable Periods” simply means that you are actively attempting to limit the quantity of trash generated by your periods. The easiest way to sustainable periods is switching to organic and reusable options available around us.
Biodegradable sanitary napkins, reusable cloth napkins, menstrual undergarments, and menstrual cups are becoming more popular among menstruators. Biodegradable sanitary napkins take six to twelve months to degrade. Menstrual underwear and reusable cotton pads can be used for a year or two. Menstrual cups are reusable for five to ten years and are constructed of medical-grade silicon.
As non-organic sanitary products are made from cotton or plastic that’s been sprayed with chemical pesticides, primarily dioxins, which in turn wreaks havoc on biodiversity, organic products are both health-friendly and environment friendly.
Here’s a list of manufacturers that provide ecofriendly, economical and medical-grade menstrual hygiene products in Indian markets:
- THE WOMAN’S COMPANY
- ECO FEMME
- SAATHI PADS
- ANANADI PADS (BY AAKAR FOUNDATION)
THE SUSTAINABLE OPTIONS FOR DISPOSAL:
With an ever-increasing sanitary waste problem in the country, the SWM 2016, made it mandatory for manufacturers to provide a pouch or wrapper for proper disposal of menstrual waste whenever they sell their products. The bag or wrapper they provide should be constructed of recyclable materials or materials that degrade quickly without polluting the environment, in case producer’s can’t provide biodegradable material for their product, they shall place a system to collect the waste back.
The two decentralized strategies for managing menstrual waste are small-scale incineration and composting.
Since menstrual waste is handled and treated as solid waste, a series of steps are supposed to be followed:
First, segregation and immediate disposal should be done by the user. Under Clause 4 of SWM 2016, consumers should securely wrap the used sanitary waste like diapers, sanitary pads, etc. in the pouches provided by the manufacturers or brand owners of these products, or in a suitable wrapping material as instructed by the local authorities, and shall place the same in the bin meant for dry waste or non-biodegradable waste.
This should be followed by collection and transportation, and secondary segregation by the waste collector and storage treatment, and finally disposal or recycling.
Solid waste solution should be selected in accordance with the products disposed. For example, commercially available sanitary napkins cannot be easily composted; however, napkins/pads made from natural materials (e.g., banana fibre, bioplastics) can be composted.
Sanitary Products that could not be composted should be incinerated under regulated temperature and pressure, potentially controlling emissions.
SWM Rules 2016 also suggest that all menstrual waste should be sent to one of the 215 large scale common bio-medical waste incinerators that exist across the country. However, this requires organized segregation, collection and transportation of menstrual and other sanitary waste on a large scale. No viable models for this have been formulated or implemented till now.
TO THE FORE:
With only two cities, Bengaluru and Pune implementing solid waste interventions to effectively segregate and identify menstrual waste during routine garbage collection, the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016 implementation is still a major concern.
A look at the menstrual hygiene products and waste management solutions in the country, currently show that a majority of the current practices are not the best possible solution but is the only suitable technology at hand for an immediate practical solution.
The future of sustainable menstruation lies in breaking taboos and empowering menstruators. For an issue that continues to be brushed under the carpet, it is necessary for us as a society, to make it easier for girls and women to use and dispose of these products efficiently. Periods shouldn’t be a taboo to hang back, so is their disposal.
Waste pickers need to be empowered, with more initiatives like the RED DOT Campaign, under which, households wrap and mark their sanitary waste with a red dot before disposal. Proper safety equipment should be provided to waste collectors for the safe handling of sanitary waste.
Despite forward looking environmental legislations, the slow progress in implementing SWM 2016 rules could potentially mean that India’s already scarce natural resources could be further polluted.
Hence, the only way to dispose of menstrual waste safely and efficiently is for everyone to pay attention to this massive environmental health issue.
Written By: Shiavni Bhatia
Editor and Team Lead: Tanya Kaushik