Why menstrual waste is proving to be a 'big bloody mess' in India
Once the monthly ordeal is finally over, menstruators experience a sense of relief, but what about the environmental legacy left behind? Most sanitary pads, laden with plastic, cannot biodegrade naturally, leading to questions about their fate once disposed of in the bins.
Unfortunately, a substantial portion of these sanitary products ends up in landfills, where waste pickers, like Delhi-based Manwara Begum, are forced to sift through them by hand. In a TOI report, Begum laments, "People don't even wrap the pad properly; they just throw it like that with their dry waste. We have to separate it to make a living. No one thinks about the person who is picking their waste — we are also human beings."
Sanitary napkins have undeniably been a boon for many Indian women, sparing them from the laborious task of washing and drying menstrual cloth. Still, a recent study revealed that even though approximately 121 million Indian women, or 36% of menstruating women, use sanitary napkins, it generates a staggering 12.3 billion napkins, equivalent to 1,13,000 tons of waste annually.
The primary reason behind this waste crisis is the scarcity of incinerators. Only a few schools, airports, and malls possess them. According to the earlier mentioned TOI report, Tanya Mahajan, director of international programs at The Pad Project, points out that "In the Solid Waste Management (SWM) rules of 2016, a solution was proposed that sanitary waste should be collected and transported to biomedical waste incinerators, but there are only a few hundred of those in the country."
Small-scale incinerators, although existent, present their own set of problems. Arundati Muralidharan, co-founder of Menstrual Health Action India, emphasizes that these on-site incinerators often lack proper maintenance and fail to incinerate the plastic in the pads efficiently. Furthermore, the absence of ventilation systems poses health risks due to the fumes emitted.
In rural India, the disposal of sanitary pads frequently occurs in local water bodies due to the lack of dustbins and the stigma associated with menstruation. Open burning and flushing are common practices, despite their environmental and health concerns.
Solving this dilemma necessitates a multifaceted approach. Experts suggest investments in technology to create biodegradable products and effective waste management systems. Pune-based startup PadCare Labs has innovatively recycled used sanitary pads into plastic and wood pulp for various applications, from paper products to paver blocks. However, the responsibility extends beyond startups. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently released a draft menstrual health and hygiene policy, emphasizing biodegradable products and the implementation of SWM rules, as well as urging manufacturers to support waste management systems.
At an individual level, segregating sanitary waste is crucial. Initiatives like Pune's Red Dot campaign, which encouraged the marking of bags containing sanitary waste, highlight the importance of collective action and awareness generation among waste pickers. Additionally, eco-friendly and reusable alternatives like cloth pads, menstrual cups, and period panties are available, though their adoption faces challenges.
In the quest for a sustainable solution, it is increasingly evident that the responsibility lies not only with individual menstruators but with producers investing in research and development. Extended producer responsibility and collaboration between waste pickers and manufacturers for efficient disposal appear to be promising steps forward.
As Manwari Begum aptly puts it, "Agar aap bech rahe ho, toh khatam karna bhi aapki zimmedari hai (if you're selling them, getting rid of them is also your responsibility)." It is time for all stakeholders to work collectively to address this growing challenge for sustainability.
(With inputs from TOI)