Having finally made it to the mainstream conversation in the last three years, the way we look at ‘periods’ in India is changing. Laws, policies, approaches and period products are constantly upgrading to suit and serve menstruators better in some instances. Observing the general shift to green period products that are reusable, disposable products are innovating. Last year saw the launch of multiple sanitary napkin brands that have christened themselves as ‘eco-friendly, bio-degradable and better for the body’. Let’s try to understand this.
Most of these ‘biodegradable’ pads claim to be chemical-free and compostable. They are wanting in disclosure of all the materials used and the composting procedure and time-frame. In absence of these answers, these pads could potentially be categorised as a lifestyle product. Unless they are compostable at home, the pads are more for convenience than for the environment.
The biggest benefit of anything biodegradable is that we can compost it in our backyard, otherwise, it has to be sent to landfills (involving waste management workers, systems and elaborate processes). In the case of biodegradable sanitary pads, it would be difficult for a house of 3 menstruators to compost blood-soaked 48 (approximately 3 x 16 pads per month) in their compost at home. This would be mixed with kitchen and other wet waste and will need looking after, not to mention the enormous amounts of space it will require for 6 months with the other pads that we will keep adding to it: 450+ pads at a point in time!
Immediate questions that need answers:
Do we have the infrastructure (space, monetary investment, time, resources) to do this? Is there an industrial composting facility in place that accepts these biodegradable compostable pads?
How comfortable are we mixing (un) sanitary waste with wet waste that will turn manure for our gardens? Is there research proving this is a completely safe method to practice?
If we are not composting them at home, then these products go through the same process of treatment: either burners/incinerators (which are below WHO standards in India) or most often, end up in landfills after being segregated by waste pickers. They continue to potentially be a biomedical hazard and contribute to an already burdened system of undignified scavenging apart from adding to the pollution of water bodies (when disposed carelessly) and space-occupying landfills where they will lie for the next few years.
Some pads have the same gel substance, as the regular plastic-heavy, disposable pads. The super absorbent/ adsorption gel is supposed to hold 30 times liquid of its own weight. This causes dry skin, irritation, and rashes. If our compostable, organic-tagged pads have these with bleached white cotton, then how is it better than disposable napkins?
That really is a million-dollar question.
We tried composting three brands of compostable pads and the results are discussed here. But before that, let’s understand why any kind of disposables is harmful to the environment. Apart from the obvious waste generation and treatment, one should also look at the carbon emissions going to producing a product and its active lifespan. In the case of a disposable napkin (compostable or not), the active life span is 6 hours, which is minuscule considering the number of hours (and not to forget carbon emissions) that went into producing & decaying one single napkin. Multiply that by as many that one will use in a lifetime. Even if it were compostable, that’s high carbon emission attached to these products.
On the contrary, when we use a reusable product, we are able to maximise the value of the emissions by using the single product for a long time given its long active lifespan. We create less waste, generate less CO2 and spend less money on such products as in the case of menstrual cups, cloth pads or period panties.
Rajasi Kulkarni Diwakar, a volunteer at Green The Red in Mumbai, composted pads (used and unused, after 2 and 6 months in compost) of brands that make eco-friendly pads and the results are detailed below. The user experience of pads has also been shared by Mayuri B from Assam.
Saathi pads: These pads, claimed to be made of banana fiber, were comfortable to wear and didn’t look bleached. However, they had lumps that might cause inconvenience to some. Two pads of Saathi were composted, one with blood and one sans blood. The one with blood disintegrated and composted in 7.5 months and the one without blood took about 5.5 months in high room temperature.
Carmesi pads: This pad looked bleached white and caused dryness. When a used Carmesi pad was composted, it didn’t start disintegrating at 6+ months. It had a plastic layer that didn’t shred. It was eventually taken out of the compost. (Contents: Corn starch, Bamboo fiber, and corn-based bio-plastic).
Heyday pads: These are made of bamboo and corn fiber and feel super soft. They look bleached white. An unused Heyday pad had broken 50% in the compost at 4 months. It had to be discontinued after, for volunteer’s personal reasons.
Asmita Yogna: A used pad from this scheme had partially composted at 4 months. The bottom leakproof layer did not degrade.
Green The Red also reached out to various brands such as Heyday, Saathi, Carmesi and Anandi pads with questions and received a response from only one of them.
Anandi pad is another biodegradable pad that we could not compost but got feedback from the manufacture instead (Aakar Innovations). The conversation is quoted verbatim below.
GreenTheRed: Your brand of pads is advertised as eco-friendly and biodegradable. Can you share the contents in this product?
Aakar: Our pads contents are all 100% Compostable & Anandi Eco+ are the only Government of India certified 100% Compostable Sanitary Pads producer in India. We have filed patents so can’t disclose the details of materials but it comes from starch & similar sources. Biodegradable is a misleading term & in a way all available pads are biodegradable. Anything which degrades naturally & becomes CO2, water & organic matters can be called as biodegradable but it may happen in few days or 500 years-it doesn’t have any time limits- it doesn’t even have proper standards, whereas compostable means it happens within 180 days in composting conditions and becomes manure & it has US, EU & Indian standards.
G: Can you tell us the duration it (a used napkin) takes to fully decompose?
A: In composting condition, it takes 90-180 days to fully decompose.
(Please note that ‘Composting conditions’ might require intervention or creation of the same by adding components or creating an environment with the right temperature and pressure, On another platform, Jaydeep from Aakar has mentioned that the Aakar pads can compost in vermicomposting at industry scale.)
G: Have you carried out any first-hand studies where the pad has been composted or buried?
A: Yes we have done it.
G: How do you recommend the consumer to dispose of the used pad of your brand?
A: It can be disposed in composting pit, or buried where it may take a little longer to decompose.
G: Do you have any mechanism in place to treat the solid waste generated by the product after use?
A: Anandi pads are fully compostable so it becomes manure & part of the soil. No special treatment is required apart from putting it in composting pit.
G: Why don’t the pads break down in home compost?
A: For composting pads, we need composting conditions else the timeline will vary from case-to-case and used pads are ideal for composting than unused pads. PFA, the recommended materials & method for home or society based composting. We recommend for urban consumers they can compost pads in their society where it’s possible to create a composting pit, else they can try our method too which we have tested in our lab, in landfill also our pads will be composted but the timeline will be mostly longer as it will be mixed with other plastic waste.
In conclusion, we recommend that users be aware of what they are buying (a compostable pad that you are unlikely to compost at home) and also, what they are buying into (convenience that comes at a cost and is no different than our former lifestyle product), and most pertinently demand for our right as a consumer to know what we are using. These products may have better feel in texture, convenience or may have fewer chemicals but it remains questionable if they really are as eco-friendly as we imagined them to be.
These products have a significantly higher carbon footprint than reusable cloth or menstrual cups that last for multiple uses and for many years with proper care.