Yes, periods are inconvenient for a lot of women. But what is more inconvenient is disposing used sanitary napkins.
Women, both rural and urban, face this question every month while government authorities struggle to find a way to handle the staggering amount of sanitary waste generated every month.
While some women wrap it in plastic or paper and throw it along with domestic garbage, some flush them down or throw them into water bodies.
“An average woman throws away about 150kg of mostly non-biodegradable absorbents every year,” according to periodofchange, a campaign started under The Kachra project.
What happens to the napkins after they are ‘disposed of’?
“One major issue of sanitary waste has always been their categorization, i.e., whether it is biomedical or plastic waste,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, Senior Research Associate at Centre for Science and Environment.
Soiled napkins, diapers, condoms and blood-soaked cotton, which are household waste according to the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, are disposed of after segregation into biodegradable and non-biodegradable components.
However, the Bio-Medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998 says that items contaminated with blood and body fluids, including cotton, dressings, soiled plaster casts, lines and bedding, are bio-medical waste and should be incinerated, autoclaved or microwaved to destroy pathogens.
The lack of concern for sanitary waste management in our country is reflected in the fact that there are no reliable statistics available on the subject. “Due to the lack of segregation of waste in India, there is hardly any documentation on this,” agrees Bindu Mohanty, co-founder, earth&us, Auroville, who has been working in the field of absorbent hygiene product waste for over a year.
Here is what happens to disposed sanitary napkins (DSN)
After you hand the soiled napkins over to the garbage collector, the napkins are collected as household waste by garbage collectors and later segregated, often manually.
“Waste pickers separate out soiled napkins from recyclable items by hand, exposing themselves to micro-organisms like E.Coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, HIV and pathogens that cause hepatitis and tetanus,” says Swati.
After this, the sanitary waste is driven out of the city and buried in a landfill on the outskirts of a city. At times they are shredded before being buried.
So, what’s the big deal, you ask?
“Almost 90 percent of a sanitary napkin is plastic,” says Swati. The thin top layer on napkins, known as the dri-weave top sheet, is made of polypropylene (a plastic polymer). The padding is mostly wood pulp mixed with super absorbent polymers and the leak-proof layer is made from an impermeable polyethylene, according to Ecofemme, a Pondicherry-based social enterprise working on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM).
The plastic used in sanitary napkins, which is non-biodegradable, is not only harmful for health, but also has negative consequences on the environment.
A 2011 study titled ‘Sanitary protection: Every woman’s health right’ estimated that only 12% of the 335 million menstruating women have access to disposable sanitary napkins. Environment portal Down to Earth estimated that 432 million pads are disposed every month.
“There are toxic chemicals in DSNs which on prolonged usage of DSNs can be absorbed by the vaginal and labial walls, especially as the skin in these parts are highly vascular with a tendency for greater absorbency,” says Bindu Mohanty.
Since non-biodegradable, the soiled napkins stay in the landfills for about 800 years.
Indian government’s interim solution to the problem is ‘incineration’. While WHO says that incineration of sanitary waste should be done at temperatures above 800 degrees, in India, not only is it difficult to handle such high temperature, there is no provision for monitoring the emissions from the incinerator.
Meanwhile MHM activists and a few small scale enterprises have found an alternate in reusable cotton sanitary napkins and menstrual cups. Since they are reusable, the amount of waste generated is reduced considerably.
However, this is not a permanent solution argue activists.
“The manufacturers must take responsibility and strive to find a biodegradable sanitary solution,” says Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, an NGO which is spearheading the Not Just a Piece of Cloth campaign.
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