When Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India addressed the issue of inaccessibility of safe and hygienic menstruation to a large portion of women in India, people turned red, for ‘secret affairs’ of women were mentioned on an international platform. As India swiftly moves towards making pads accessible to women across the nation, menstrual waste is presenting itself as a Brobdingnagian threat to the already depleting environment in the subcontinent
According to the Menstrual Health Alliance India, a single sanitary napkin could take 500-800 years to decompose because the plastic used in them is non-biodegradable. National Health Family Survey 2015-2016 estimates that out of the 336 million women menstruating in India, only about
121 million or 36 per cent of menstruating women have access to sanitary napkins. The data not only reflects the reality where a large part of the female population in the country still does not have access to safe and hygienic menstrual practices but also on the huge amount of menstrual waste generated that goes untreated. WaterAid India, a non-government organisation, estimated that these 121 million girls and women dispose of 21,780 million pads annually, which creates a major challenge for the country’s waste management system.
Menstrual Awareness and COVID
From a time when women whispered under their breaths about their periods, India has progressed to a time where an Indian food-delivering organisation, Zomato, introduced a policy where women employees can avail up to 10 days’ period leaves in a year. Deepinder Goel, founder and CEO of Zomato, said in a note sent to the organization’s employees that female colleagues expressing that they are on their period leave should not be uncomfortable for any man.
A study titled ‘Menstrual Hygiene Management among Adolescent Girls in India’ said that out of 100,000 girls in India, almost 50,000 did not know about menstruation until the first time that they got their periods. The 2016 study further describes that many girls even think that they are dying or have caught a horrible disease due to the pain and blood during their first periods. The number of workshops conducted in schools has increased over the years to make girls au fait about menstruation. These workshops also teach girls about safe and hygienic menstruation practices involving usage of sanitary pads instead of cloth or sand/ashes and the correct way of disposal of used pads.
Even though, in rural India, girls still drop out because of lack of menstrual awareness and hygiene management, the number of such girls has started dropping. Programmes by the central and state governments providing free sanitary napkins to teenage girls in government schools every month may be one of the most significant reasons. Government of India imposed a nation-wide lockdown on March 25 this year, but sanitary napkins were not in the list of essential items which were exempted from the restrictions. When grocery stores in urban localities started running out of sanitary napkins, the government decided to add them to the list of essential items. Villages faced acute shortage of pads during the lockdown. Only 15 per cent of the women in India had access to sanitary napkins during the lockdown. Schoolgirls also lost access to the free pads that they were receiving from their schools. Many women and girls were reported to have switched back to cloths and ashes.
Menstrual waste segregation, treatment and disposal
Women wrap their cloth pads or sanitary napkins in paper and dispose of it. Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) released data on menstrual waste management showing 28 per cent of the used pads are thrown with routine waste, 28 per cent are thrown in open, 33 per cent are disposed of via burial and 15 per cent are burnt openly.
The pads thrown with routine waste are segregated manually by waste pickers who are thus exposed to several pathogens causing hepatitis and tetanus. The used pads dumped in the open become accessible to animals. Being 90 per cent plastic and consisting body fluid waste, these pads can harm animals to a large extent. The pads, when buried in landfills, contaminate the soil, block the underground water cycle, and harm microorganisms for they have antibacterial chemicals and non-biodegradable material. Incineration of used pads is a sustainable management method if done properly, but pads are burnt openly which adds to air pollution. However, environment-friendly boxed incinerators have been devised in recent years which still await their introduction into the waste management cycle.
In Pune, Red Dot Campaign was started by SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) in collaboration with the Pune Municipal Corporation and KagadKach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a waste-pickers union. The campaign aimed to spread awareness on ways to dispose of sanitary waste in the city. The residents were asked to first wrap sanitary napkins and diapers in paper and mark them with a red dot which ultimately helps the waste-pickers while segregating them. This is a step forward in ensuring waste generators segregate waste into three categories- wet, dry and domestic hazardous waste. Sanitary napkins, along with things like injections, have been added in the hazardous domestic waste category by Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s guideline on Management of Sanitary Waste, deep burial, composting, pit burning and incineration (provided that it is a low-cost, small-scale, electric, and high-temperature biomedical incinerator) are some of the methods that should be adopted to dispose of such waste. However, the guidelines are not properly implemented.
Dr B Mangalam resides in Dwarka Sector 7, New Delhi. Every resident of that sector received an official notice from Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) this year directing them to segregate their waste in three parts- dry, wet and biohazard waste while dumping it in three separate dustbins established in front of every house and at the gate. Residents have been asked to dump syringes, sanitary napkins in it. MCD charges the whole locality a fine of `10,000 when they receive any mixing between the waste collected from the area. This is a crucial step by the MCD in sanitary napkins’ disposal and management.
Sanitary pads from waste collection centres need to be efficiently treated to reduce its negative impact on the environment. According to the World Health Organisation, shredding of pads and then incinerating them at a temperature above 800 degree Celsius is the right way of treatment of menstrual waste. India does not have proper provision for such high-temperature incinerators yet.
A Pune based organization called PadCare Labs has come up with a sanitary napkin disposal system called SanEco. This system breaks down the used pads into its basic components, i.e cellulose and plastic, which can then be recycled into paper or used in plastic components. The waste-to-energy kind of incinerators and systems like SanEco are coming up in India but their introduction into the country’s waste management system is still far from reality.
Sustainable techniques for menstrual waste disposal
Starting awareness campaigns on the harmful results of plastic sanitary napkins is a must now. Women in India often are not aware of all the options available to them for the absorption of their period blood, other than pads and tampons. Women can switch to pads made of cotton, banana fibre, bamboo fibre, or water hyacinth plants which are affordable and are easily biodegradable. Menstrual cups are another sustainable option for the absorption of menstruation blood as they are reusable and environment-friendly. Disclosure of the chemical composition of pads by the manufacturers will help users in making informed choices.
The government needs to start awareness programmes and work on sanitary waste disposal and management hand in hand with programmes making safe menstruation accessible to women. O P Ratra, plastic management expert, said that plastic is not a health hazard but only an innate material that can be turned into a great asset if managed and recycled properly. Despite forward-looking legislations and machineries, the slow progress in implementing this could potentially mean that India’s already scarce natural resources could be