We learn gradually that we can’t exist without our environment and we understand that we must protect our environment. But, alas! All learning remains only on papers and is reflected only in examinations.
Imagine you taking a bath in a pond or walking on a beach on a sunny day, and suddenly you realize that something has stuck in your feet. When you look down, you know that it’s a pad or maybe its piece. If you felt a little discomfort, then perhaps you should think again, as it is a sad reality and you might even witness a stray animal choking on a used sanitary napkin. Menstrual waste is something that is not very often talked about.
As now many know, menstruation is something that isn’t in itself considered an important topic, but it actually is. It is a natural process, but so much shame and stigma are attached to it. Just like the environment, it is ignored and becomes a problematic issue altogether to talk upon.
But, here, there is something that we should put our attention to. On the topic of menstrual hygiene, there is something that is the silent problem. And that is the “sanitary waste”. Sanitary waste includes menstrual waste (used panty liners, sanitary pads, and tampons) and used condoms, syringes, diapers, cotton, and bandages. All of these contain bodily fluids and are categorized as domestic hazardous waste.
Now you might be thinking about why it is a matter of grave concern. Nearly 121 million women and adolescent girls in India use around eight sanitary napkins per menstrual cycle, translating to 1 million pads generated monthly, resulting in 12 billion pads produced and disposed of annually in India alone. One sanitary pad can take 500 to 800 years to decompose as the plastic used is non-biodegradable and can lead to health and environmental hazards.
This is the actual problem. Menstrual Health Alliance of India has stated that 45% of the menstrual waste collected across the country, primarily consisting of sanitary napkins, is disposed of as routine waste along with other household garbage. Only 2,000 soiled napkins and blood-soaked cotton are disposed of after segregation into biodegradable and non-biodegradable components.
When we search for some policies in this regard, we get many, but only on papers. The Guidelines on Management of Sanitary Waste provide that the menstrual waste be disposed of safely and makes it the duty of the municipal corporation to ensure that. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 provided that there should be a separate sanitary landfill for the disposal of sanitary waste in each district. It also had set the responsibility of the sanitary pad manufacturers. But, as expected, none have been complied with.
So now when we have a grave problem, there must be some solution as well. And the solution is to switch to sustainable, environmentally friendly menstrual products like cloth pads while others must dispose of their waste properly. These products are long-lasting and sustainable, as well. Also, there must be a proper mechanism for menstrual waste management which should actually exist on grounds and not merely on papers.
Bengaluru and Pune are the only Indian Cities that implement solid waste interventions to segregate and identify menstrual waste during routine garbage collection effectively. Other cities must learn from them.
The problem with these menstrual pads is that first they don’t get decomposed and also, even where there are incinerators, they also are not handled properly. Incinerators are many times miss-handled. Also, the open sanitary waste is prone to being pathogenic, and that again is problematic. Ultimately, the sanitary waste finds its way to the drainage systems and harms the overall environment. Sanitary waste’s problem must be addressed so that sanitary napkins do not end up forming a bed of water bodies. So, we need to implement the existing policies effectively and take the problem of menstrual waste; in coming years, this problem alone would cause havoc.