“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?
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.
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?
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.
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’!
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.