Our Menstrual Waste Will Last Longer On Earth Than We Do: A Guide To Plastic-Free Periods

Period Paath logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC, to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management among menstruating persons in India. Join the conversation to take action and demand change! The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

“It was sparkling white and smelled like perfume. I took off its strip and put in evenly on my panties. It was uncomfortable, but I didn’t have an option. My grandmother remarked how lucky I was to have it, cause they used cloth in her days. Also, there was disappointment on her face, for spending money on such expensive products for her granddaughter’s hygiene seemed abysmal. I changed thrice during the first two days of my period, and moved to two pads a day for the next three days. I wrapped the used pads in a newspaper and disposed them off from the back door of my house into the colony dumpster during the night.” 

That’s exactly what the life cycle of a pad looks like for most menstruators. The ‘Out of sight, out of mind‘ philosophy worked for me as well. The occasional scattering of pads on the road did bother me, but ignorance was bliss.

After all, what could I do about it? Who was managing this waste I was creating? Where was it eventually going?

sanitary pads
It takes anything between 500-800 years for plastic to biodegrade. 

 

Periods And Plastic

  • On an average, a menstruator bleeds for 37 years
  • Sanitary pads are made of 90% plastic
  • Disposing off a sanitary pad is equivalent to throwing away four bags of plastic
  • It takes anything between 500-800 years for plastic to biodegrade

When I did use sanitary pads, I’d use around eight to 12 pads in a month, which makes the count as follows:

Number of sanitary pads used in a month (10) x 4 (bags of plastic) x 12 (months) x 37 (average years of menstruation) =

10 x 4 x 12 x 37 = 17,760 pads in my menstruating life!

This means that the first pad I ever used, and every single one I’ve used over the years, is going to be around much longer than me, harming the Earth and its beings.

Managing Menstrual Waste

 

According to a report by Menstrual Health Alliance India (MHAI), 45% of menstrual waste often ends up with household waste, increasing the burden on the local administration for solid waste management with respect to both the process and infrastructure.

The increasing size of the landfills is telling us the story of how accumulation of used napkins can be harmful for all living beings and public health. Not that the cities have their waste management processes sorted out, but in some places, the soiled pads are burned in incinerators, which causes toxic emissions and is not an environment-friendly solution.

A report by Water Aid highlights how caste plays a huge role in determining the fate of sanitation workers across India. The menstrual waste generated is handled by people primarily from the so-called lower castes and with little or no health/hygiene considerations. The lack of protection equipment also exposes them to toxic bacteria and unwanted health hazards.

Don’t these individuals deserve the right to a healthy, hygienic and dignified life? 

The Menace Of Microplastics

According to a report by the NDTV, there are 336 million women and girls who experience menstruation in India, but only 121 million (~36%) of them have access to sanitary pads. This generates more than 113,000 tons of menstrual waste annually. Given that sanitary pads are 90% plastic, it makes their disposal even more difficult.

A number of sanitary pad brands claim that their products are biodegradable, but do not clarify the timeline of when they become biodegradable. Even if their pads were biodegradable, the plastic components will just breakdown into micro plastics (less than 5 mm), commonly found on our beaches and oceans.

Last year, a Washington Post article highlighted how human beings are constantly eating and ingesting micro-plastics and how it could be harmful.

Buy-in For Sustainable Menstruation 

The first menstrual cup was invented by an American actor, Leona Chalmers, who patented her latex rubber cup in 1937. When I started researching on menstrual cups, its history was quite fascinating. It made me wonder why there has been a dearth of information and lack of products available in the market.

This is because the narratives around health and sanitation products are controlled by big conglomerates who have immense budgets to push marketing around their single-use products that have ‘great smell and wings that absorb blue period blood’!

What Are My Options? 

Menstrual Cups and Reusable Cloth Pads are not only eco-friendly options but they are economically very viable!

Of course, every vagina and every menstruator’s period is different — please do research about sustainable menstrual products available and talk to others who’ve made the switch before beginning your sustainable menstruation journey.

I am aware that there are many menstruators who are still struggling to break the stigma around periods. Their periods and lives are impacted by society, culture and economic conditions, and there is a need for individuals, organisations, civil society and the State to work together to address this issue. However, I also believe that there is a lot of power in small steps. There is an urgent need to initiate dialogue and action to address the politics, sustainability, inclusion, access and affordability around Menstrual Health and Hygiene.

You can join me in this journey by signing my petition that advocates for access to affordable sustainable menstrual products in public spaces like schools, colleges, institutions, roads, highways, railway stations et cetera.

I firmly believe that all menstruators should have the right to make informed choices for their body, health and the planet. Hoping to continue seeking answers and contributing in this journey of a plastic free period for all.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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