In a scenario, where safe menstruation for every female is imperative, the amount of steadily growing menstrual waste is an equally acute environmental issue, and it is this double issue that we’ll have to deal with while looking into ‘issue of menstrual waste in India’ and to ensure a ‘Greener Menstruation’.
Menstruation, the normal biological process that is experienced by menstruators in their menstruating years (12-45 years approx.) is no longer a taboo, at least in the educated circles. But is it the case everywhere ? The clear cut answer is a big ‘NO’. The sad reality is that in a country where Goddesses are worshipped which includes the menstruating Goddesses such as in the Kamakhya temple , there still exists a social stigma, taboo and a notion of ‘impurity’ to what is termed as ‘periods’.
Arunachalam Murugantham, better known as ‘Pad-Man’ after Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar’s blockbuster film, brought about a revolutionary invention that made the use of sanitary napkins in rural India possible. With low-cost options of sanitary napkins being developed to promote hygiene and women’s safety in rural areas. It seems there is one part of the problem that has still not been addressed either by the eloquent Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan, that is; the part that comes after the use of these sanitary napkins: menstrual waste disposal. It is this dichotomy of inaccessibility of safe menstruation products and the unsustainability of the menstrual products that the nation has to deal with to strive towards ensuring a greener menstruation.
While a large part of the menstruators are struggling to deal with their menstruation, due to the inaccessibility of the menstrual hygiene products, the other chunks of the menstruators have access to quality menstrual hygiene products that help them deal with it better. While the availability of the menstrual hygiene products like sanitary pad, tampon, menstrual cup etc, that improvise substantially over time is of great advantage to the menstruators, the amount of damage that these products and its increased consumption produces is often neglected or not given adequate attention by anyone.
Infact, India produces approximately 9000 tonnes of Sanitary waste every year, almost equivalent to weighing the Statue of Unity Four times. However, this particular waste disposal issue still largely remains a ‘silent problem’ in India.
Have you ever given a thought to what happens to your menstrual waste after you dispose of it?
When a used menstrual hygiene product is thrown away in the bin one out of two things is going to happen it either ends up sitting in landfilled sites taking up space and contaminating the soil (Since it is the non-biodegradable waste, this stays up in landfills for up to 500 years. The end result – overflowing landfills causing endless harm to the environment) or just going to end up incinerated releasing toxic chemicals like dioxin and furan into the air that it also damages the plants, animals and the humans and it is to be noted that these are the two methods recommended in the guidelines issued by the Government of India for the promotion of menstrual hygiene. The inadequacy of proper disposal mechanisms further worsens this.
According to Menstrual Health Alliance of India (MHAI), the number of menstruating women in India who use disposable sanitary napkins stands at a staggering 121 million. Disposable sanitary napkins are made of 90% plastic and keeping in mind the adhesives, packing, etc., each pad is equivalent to around 4 plastic bags. If we estimate the number of pads used per cycle to a modest 8, it equates to roughly 12 billion pads disposed per year. According to a report, each of these pads can roughly take 400 to 500 years to decompose due to their largely plastic ingredients. Despite the massive waste generated in the country, India does not have separate laws governing the disposal of sanitary waste. Only two cities – Bengaluru and Pune – have laws on segregation of sanitary waste wherein the sanitary waste must be separately handed over along with the dry and wet waste of the household.
Next on the line, disposable tampons can be up to 90% plastic and amount to the equivalent of four plastic shopping bags in one single-use product that means people who menstruate are using 20 or more tampons over the course of every period, amounting to the equivalent of 80 plastic bags per cycle. When tampons and applicators are flushed down the toilet, they can end up in the ocean when sewer systems fail and harm ecosystems. Tampons can take up to 20 years to break down in marine environments and can cause health complications or death when ingested by animals. Canada and Mexico City have included tampons in their single-use plastics bans for this reason. When the chemicals used in tampons, such as dioxin chlorine and rayon, end up in landfills, they also end up getting soaked up by the earth and are released as pollution into groundwater and the air.
However, Menstrual Cups unlike tampons and menstrual pads, which absorb the fluid, collect it and thus can be reused. If compared with using 12 pads per period, use of a menstrual cup would comprise only 0.4% of the plastic waste generated. Thus,on comparing the considerable amount of pollution, and the years taken for decomposition, the reusable menstrual cups seem to be a more feasible option than the plastic made sanitary pads and tampons. On the other hand, more sustainable is the cloth pad, which however can’t be generalised as a convenient option for all.
It is here that the need of adopting and improvising on the various methods implemented to ensure safer and greener menstruation comes into picture. It might be the small steps and initiatives that were started among the very few people in their locality which may sprang into being the onus of structural change all across India. For example, the Papna Mau village has got a low cost common incinerator to decompose the used sanitary pad, then there are projects such as Baala, Eco femme,and Goonj- My Pad initiative that uses various eco-friendly materials to manufacture menstrual pads and hygiene products, while the example of Kerala’s little village of Kumbalangi stands on the pedestal by raising awareness as well as providing all the menstruators of the locality with menstrual cups that would help to reduce the menstrual waste to a large extent.
However, the First and foremost thing to be done is to raise social awareness to do away with the taboos associated with menstruation that even prevents the use of menstrual cups in several parts of the country. And proper guidelines and mechanisms have to be ensured for the safer disposal of the sanitary products. No doubt, that while ensuring safer and comfortable menstrual products to the menstruators is necessary it is also equally the need of the hour to provide them with more eco-friendly alternatives, that could help India tackle its issue of mounting Menstrual waste and thereby ensuring and moving into a safer and greener menstruation.