Updated: Oct 26, 2020
As a girl enters her adolescence, she gears up for monthly periods for almost 40 years of her life. 50% of adolescent girls in India are not aware of menstruation before their first periods and among those who are aware, they are unsure and unguided of dealing with it. In India, women mainly use sanitary napkins and used clothes. According to the Menstrual Health Alliance India, 336 million women menstruate in which 64% use sanitary pads. Roughly if 8 pads are used by 1 individual per cycle then around 1 billion of pads are generated per months which amounts to 12 billion pads per year.
There is even a scarier scenario, each sanitary napkins made up of plastic with adhesives, plastic packing etc, equals to nearly 4 plastic bags. This implies each women contributes to throwing around 40 plastic bags each month. Considering the above number of 12 billion pads year, we produce 5.7 trillion plastic bags each year in the name of sanitary napkins.
Current Disposal methods
While Urban Women dispose soiled pads by wrapping it in a newspaper or plastic cover and dispose it along with the domestic waste to the municipalities. Some even flush it down their toilets which either clog the drainage or gradually reach a water stream. Most of the municipalities still segregate and handle waste as two types i.e. dry or wet waste, however there is a third waste category Biomedical waste which constitutes Sanitary waste. This category is not stressed as a separate category, for segregation at source of Domestic Waste. Pads, when received in wrapped paper/plastic, its identification is lost, and it eventually finds way to landfill.
Whereas Rural women undergo and experience menstruation as a taboo, traditionally considered as impure and dirty, leaves girls and women with minimal knowledge on menstruation and disposal techniques, they either bury them in land or burn it off.
Building the real picture, Menstrual Health Alliance India states 28% of sanitary waste is disposed along municipal waste that may be incinerated or go to landfill, 33% is buried under the earth, 28% is burnt in open and 28% is disposed in open like streets, rooftop, open places, which gradually lands in the seepages or may reach water bodies.
Considering Women's hygiene of utmost importance, the materials that go into making of Sanitary products are dominantly following 'single use and throw' approach. Sanitary pads or tampons that are hygiene products are made up of super-absorbent polymers (SAP), non-woven plastic layer to feel dry and plastic back-sheet to avoid leaking. The layers of these materials create pads which mean 90% of the napkin is made up of plastic. This plastic is of low quality and also contains carcinogenic and dioxin items that can cause harm if used prolonged. It becomes a huge health issue, in the name of hygiene. Additionally, with mostly plastic, a pad takes 500 – 800 years to decompose which is causing a huge environmental hazard.
How do we handle this waste ?
From the sanitary waste generation till its management, the responsibility of handling the sanitary waste is a tripartite co-operative relationship between the government (Urban Local Bodies), manufacturers and citizens themselves.
The Government of India has given the below recommended options for disposal of different sanitary wastes (as per Menstrual Health Management Guidelines 2015)
Segregation of sanitary waste plays a major role in giving the right treatment to it. Simple practice like marking the wrapped soiled napkins in red color or handling it to waste pickers in a separate red color bag can help the waste workers to separate it out. This segregated soiled napkin can be sent for incineration where the unit is built after a detailed Environment Impact Assessment. Government need to bring in more stringent policies to drive these changes as Solid Waste Management rules 2016 do not focus much on sanitary waste management.
The second arm, Manufacturers driving our market and lifestyle choices, should be encouraged more by the Government to come up with eco-friendly sanitary products. In recent years, there have been few companies that have come up with innovative products like menstrual cups, reusable cloth pads/ banana fiber as absorbent materials etc. Also, there are small incinerators designed for usage in hospitals/hotels/Resident Welfare Associations/Airports/Conventional hall etc. However, these are used still by a very small groups of women. The stigma around menstruation being a taboo, in general in society, is one of the prime reason hampering the change of perspectives and practices.
Citizens, the last and the most important arm, play a very important role in reducing this waste. They can break the circle of inhibitions and switch to reusables and make sure that their sanitary waste is not reaching to landfills harming the environment. Rural women largely still use rags or clothes mainly due to low affordability and the stigma around it, which cause serious health issues. One who can afford to use pads have problem of disposal techniques, for which few communities in rural areas have come up with homemade quick fix incinerators like they have a clay pot in which the napkins are burnt once in a while. Introduction of cloth pads with underwear liners to them make a more practical option to handle their red days while one who can afford, switch to menstrual cups or pads that are easily decomposable.
Adolescent girls even in present age are not aware of their first periods and how it would be like. We have been and are still being trained to handle periods silently and secretly, wherein half of our energy goes into hiding that we are menstruating. All these factors bring in the need of awareness to women and the social environment they live in.
"An open state of mind, better education system and a society sensitive towards women, need to be nurtured for girls and women to experience their menstruation with normalcy, dignity and free of stigmas"
The wlog has been written by Soumya Pattar and edited by Kirti Makhija
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