In the past couple of years, there have been a lot of awareness campaigns on menstrual hygiene with many non-profit organizations, celebrities and different organizations joining hands to remove the taboo surrounding menstruation. Educational campaigns on the importance of using sanitary napkins (the most commonly available hygiene product in India) have picked up a lot recently; especially in rural areas, where woman still use ash, sawdust or an unhygienic piece of cloth as alternatives.
But, in our attempt to solve one problem of making sanitary napkins accessible to women everywhere, we have ended up creating another problem we aren’t even close to solving: How safe are these napkins, for the women and the environment? While removing the stigma and ensuring menstrual hygiene for every woman is definitely a step in the right direction, sadly, there is still not enough awareness or education on the problems and dangers associated with the usage of synthetic sanitary napkins.
Being the most commonly used menstrual product in India, it is surprising how little awareness there is on the side effects and dangers a sanitary pad poses. The first time I realised the gravity of the situation was when Dia Mirza (UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador for India) spoke about it earlier this year. Intrigued I read about it and realized that this is a volcano waiting to burst.
As these are considered a medical product, companies do not have to list the components on the pack. Hence, most people are not aware of the items used to manufacture this product. A sanitary napkin is made up of multiple layers. Typically, the pad contains SAPs (super absorbent polymers), rayon and viscose. SAP is added because of its capacity to hold water and rayon is used in bleaching the cotton/wood pulp (which is used for making an absorbent core) to make it look whiter and hence, more appealing.
But all these end up causing more harm than good. Rayon when used for bleaching, releases dioxins in low levels. Dioxin is responsible for causing pelvic inflammatory disease, infections, impaired fertility. The World Health Organization lists dioxin as one of the dirty dozen- a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants.
There are many other problems associated with using sanitary napkins for example:
But the problem doesn’t end here. According to Solid Waste Management(SWM) rules, sanitary pads waste comes under the category of Domestic Hazardous Waste. Right now there is no separate way prescribed to dispose of them. So, out it goes with all the household garbage. This causes serious health issues for the waste pickers when they segregate the waste; exposing them to infection-causing microbes, leading to diseases like Hepatitis, E.coli infection, Salmonella infection, Typhoid, etc. Recently, the Red Dot Campaign was launched in Pune which encouraged women to throw sanitary pads in a ‘red dot marked’ packet, so that they could be easily identified and segregated.
The used pads are then finally moved to landfills on the outskirts of the city, where they stay for hundreds of years. SAPs are petroleum-based materials that do not degrade easily. Let’s just say, a pad used by a woman will not be decomposed in her lifetime or her kids or their kids. Now, imagine the extent of plastic pollution we are creating/have created, especially when one pad is said to be equivalent to 4 plastic bags. Every sanitary napkin carries two grams of non-biodegradable plastic. Multiply that with an average of 8-10 pads per menstruating women every month and let that sink in.
Incineration (controlled burning) is another option being explored by the government. A lot of mini incinerators have also been introduced in the market recently, primarily to be used in schools and other educational institutes. But there is no way to check on the burning right now. There are no provisions to monitor the emissions from these incinerators.
According to WHO, all health-related waste should be incinerated only at temperatures over 800 degrees, because at lower temperatures they typically release poisonous gases including dioxins and furans and there is no check right now to ensure the temperature regulations. So, that brings us back to square one. Synthetic sanitary napkins are a problem. Period.
So, what are the alternatives to sanitary napkins? Tampons and menstrual cups are available alternatives but the acceptance for these products among women and girls is low. Plus, there are some irritation and allergies associated with both. So, what is the alternative for a sanitary pad then? Definitely not a pad made of plastic, to begin with.
There are a number of eco-friendly alternatives available in the market today. Sathi Pads, made of banana fibre is one such option. According to the manufacturers, banana fibre uses six times less water per ton produced than cotton, and 10 times less fertilizers. Another advantage of using the product is that it decomposes within six months of disposing of! The core is not white, but light brown in colour and it specifically mentions that the pad is not bleached. There is no layer or mesh on it, unlike usual pads but the absorbent core is very thick with great absorption capacity.
However, the manufactures should provide the pads in a separate wrapper for the disposal of each napkin following the SWM rules which is one area I found these pads lacking. Another issue with these pads is that they come in a single standard size which most women will not be comfortable with. These can be ordered via their website at ₹178 for a pack of eight pads.
Another available alternative is the Eco Femme, a colourful cloth pad which comes in various sizes. The top and the other absorbent layers are made of organic, natural (unbleached) cotton flannel. Our grandmothers used to wear similar cloth pads and these are now being considered as a great option if washed and dried properly. The best part about cloth pads is they are extremely safe. Cost of these pads ranges from ₹240 to ₹295 per pad. You can easily order them from their website.
The stripy fabric of this product is not organically certified yet and the manufacturers are working to resolve this issue. A major problem in rural areas is that women use homemade cotton pads but because of the stigma associated with it, they do not dry it out properly in the sun. Also, many working women do not prefer cloth pads to avoid the hassle of washing and rewashing during travel and long working days
Aakar Innovations Pvt. Ltd. manufactures another variant christened ANANDI, which are cost-effective, biodegradable, 100% compostable and are made from agricultural waste. No fancy packaging ensures the cost remains low making it affordable for everyone but they are not easily available in all the states yet. The best part is that these pads start decomposing within 90-180 days of disposal. Even though the pads are a little stiff they function well.
Orders can be placed by sending a request at their email ID: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org A pack (eight pads) of regular Anandi Pads costs ₹25-28 and Anandi eco plus costs ₹35-40. The price variance is because of the tax structure difference across states.
Heyday pads are made of only corn and bamboo fibre and come in a colourful cardboard box. They took their tagline seriously (Being there through thick and thin) and come in two variants: Ultra Thin and Maxi Fluff to suit different requirements. The cost is comparable to synthetic pads available in the market, with 7 pads costing under ₹85 and 14 pads under ₹165. They can be ordered from their website. The best part is, they are extremely soft against the skin and come in individual wrappers, which are also made of cornstarch. These pads will decompose after 6 months of disposal. They also have two pack sizes of 7 pads and 14 pads for both the variants.
Carmesi pads are also made from corn starch and bamboo fibre. They come in two sizes, regular and XL and it is possible to buy a combo box. A box of 10 pads ( either of the two or five each ) costs ₹300 and a big box of 120 pads costs ₹2500 and comes in a storage box. There are extra charges on shipping. The cost is high because they have spent on aesthetics and packaging. The good part is they come with individual biodegradable disposal bag for each pad.
The central government has also launched a biodegradable sanitary pad ‘Suvidha‘ this International Women’s Day, priced at ₹2.50 per pad. It will be available at Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi centres across the country.
With the sudden focus on the increasing amount of plastic around us, it won’t be long before sanitary pads become a focus area too. It’s time for the MNC giants with their huge research and development setups to come up with innovations and bring about some changes in their hygiene products too. Meanwhile, there is no dearth of options to use. The only thing lacking is awareness. Next time, you educate someone on menstrual hygiene; make sure you also talk about the other side of it, the one that will soon be a problem.