A paper bag is all it takes, proves a Pune organisation, to ensure that waste pickers won’t have to lay their bare hands on soiled discards.

Everyday, Bebitai Mohite sifts through garbage bins of about 100 homes of Pune, segregating waste. She often injures her hand from pins and glass pieces. But the worst form of waste, 48-year-old Bebitai says, are “sanitary napkins and diapers”. Her hands often dip into a rotten wet discard of red or brown.

Among the new forms of waste today are the non-biodegradable sanitary napkins. More urban women are using hi-fibre sanitary napkins, even as rural India still uses cloth. The muslin nappy for babies has been replaced by thick diapers. More adults today suffer from incontinence, thus increasing the usage of adult diapers. None of these are biomedical waste, yet, are toxic.

In an attempt to reduce these encounters with putrid filth, a square paper bag made from newspaper has been designed for the disposal of sanitary napkins. It has a sticker that announces its purpose; waste pickers thus need not unwrap it to see if it contains anything that could be sold. In 2009, a local organisation SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) developed the bag, in consultation with its 1,867 members. SWaCH provides door-to-door waste management across three lakh Pune households. Aging or pregnant waste pickers, or women from slums, were taught to make the bags. A yellow sticker with text in Hindi and English was pasted. Each bag is sold for Rs. 1, and only packs of 50 are sold.

A string originally meant to fasten the bag has now been replaced by an adhesive peel-off strip. A new origami fold makes the bag sturdier. There is a pink sticker instead of the yellow, bearing the universal symbol representing women. And women from the middle class are “thanking” waste pickers through these bags.

Worth it

“The most expensive sanitary napkin costs Rs. 8. We can surely spend another rupee for its safe and clean disposal,” says Smita Rajabali, who has convinced several women in her 154-home housing society to buy these bags. Smita says that during a festive exchange-gift event at her yoga class, the male participants insisted on taking the bags for the women in their homes.

Aarti Patil, Principal of Vidyanchal School, has made it mandatory for female students and staff to use them. “Students should understand that we owe everything to the environment and the society. We have been segregating the waste in the school anyway. Students have observed how waste pickers work, and hence there was no need to explain about the bags. The staff readily agreed to using it,” says Patil.

Similarly, Charuta Mahabale gifts these bags to women during haldi kumkum. “Most women are happy to learn about these bags. But some worry about their family’s reaction when these bags are taken home from a religious gathering,” she laughs.

Far away from Charuta’s high-rise apartment, Layla Pathan and her daughter-in-law Shaheen make these bags in their slum dwelling. It takes them 10 minutes to fold one, and Layla sometimes makes 100 bags through the day. They earn Rs. 25 from SWaCH for every 100 bags. “This bag is a good idea but it is strenuous to make them. It would be nice if we are paid Rs. 40 for every 100 bags,” says Shaheen. Both the women are illiterate. They feel the stickers on the bags are pointless.

“Almost every waste picker is illiterate. How will he know what this bag is for? Even if he can read, he has no time. It is easier to tear apart the bag and see if its content can be sold as scrap,” says Layla.

What, then, would work? “There should be an image of the sanitary napkin on the sticker,” says Layla. Agrees Sangita Jadhav of SWaCH. She travels by crowded buses daily to deliver about 500 ordered bags. She knows best what it means to sell something that hasn’t been promoted. “Customers often tell me that the bags need to be marketed well. We need a better sticker to communicate with the waste picker,” she says. Only the members of SWaCH, and the 8,000 members of KKPKP (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat) — the association of waste pickers through which SWaCH was formed — are aware of the bag. The rest of the city’s waste pickers would still possibly unwrap them.

Better marketing needed

Maitreyi Shankar, business development manager at SWaCH, who has seen the evolution of the bag, says the door-to-door supply isn’t cost effective. Bulk purchase is a solution. So far, just one office of a software company has bought these bags. “I have been speaking to officials at Kimberley Clark Lever to include these bags with their sanitary napkins, as part of their extended product responsibility. But these things take time to materialise,” she says. There are about 1.5 lakh bags waiting to be sold, halting further production. “I haven't received the materials to make the bags for a while now. Even if the pay is low, it still provides me with some money,” says Layla.

But Bebitai is optimistic that the residents of the housing complex where she works would readily purchase the bag, if a SWaCH representative were to formally introduce it to them. “Even though some women never wrap their napkins despite repeated requests, I think we should talk to them as equals — as one woman clearing off the trash of another,” says the polite lady, who has also visited Copenhagen to attend the 16th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP16).

Smita has an Utopian idea. “Shouldn’t such an eco-friendly sanitary napkin become the reason for competition among manufacturers? The napkins were developed for the comfort of women; these bags are for the comfort and dignity of those women who handle our soiled napkins.”