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It is an uncomfortable but scary truth

Preethi Sukumaran
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The problem of disposal of bio-medical waste needs to be addressed with sensitivity

Disposing sanitary waste in a hygienic manner is a matter of grave concern
Disposing sanitary waste in a hygienic manner is a matter of grave concern

There is one category of waste that makes everybody queasy. It is the disposal of our sanitary waste: used feminine hygiene products and used disposable diapers.

With the addition of blood or faeces, used disposables become dangerous for a city corporation to deal with. They cannot be humanely handled by garbage collectors; they contain a cocktail of materials including cotton, a super absorbent polymer, and a whole lot of plastic.

The environmental trail of these products is even more alarming. It takes 236 ml of crude oil to create the plastic that goes into a single disposable diaper. Parents who their baby in disposable diapers until two would run through 5,000 disposable diapers; 20 trees will be cut and 1,180 litres of crude oil used to make these 5,000 diapers.

The statistics around feminine hygiene products are no less alarming. Only 12 per cent of the 355 million women of menstruating age in India can afford disposable sanitary napkins. But, conservatively, these 42.6 million women will throw 21.3 billion sanitary napkins into a landfill in their lives.

Apart from wood pulp used in both disposable diapers and sanitary napkins, chlorine bleach is a key ingredient; used to whiten the pulp for aesthetic reasons. Chlorine bleach is both an environmental and health hazard, releasing toxic chemicals as a by-product. Some of these toxins like dioxin and furan are carcinogenic while others pollute our rivers.

Therefore, at every stage of manufacturing and use, disposables like diapers and sanitary napkins use up precious resources like crude oil and trees, contaminate water and the atmosphere, and finally end up in a landfill since there is no option to dispose of them safely.

The solution

Several modern reusable options for both diapers and sanitary napkins are available in India for the consideration of the responsible urban citizen. As always, a switch from disposables into re-usables will not only be cheaper in the long run, but will also have an immediate impact on the health of the city and the citizen.

Reusable cloth diapers

Indian parents have a long tradition of early toilet training, now being adopted in the west as 'Elimination Communication (EC)'; many traditional families in India use EC methods to fully toilet-train children by the time they are one. Along with EC, simple cloth nappies are used to help signal wetness to a child and help her communicate with the parent. This system does not require the use of any disposable diapers.

For families that find EC and cloth nappies difficult to use, reusable modern cloth diapers (MCDs) are an ideal solution. MCDs have two parts, a water-tight outer cover with a washable cloth insert inside. Once the MCD is full, the solids are flushed down the toilet and the inserts washed and reused. Moreover, the baby does not come in contact with harmful chemicals found in disposable diapers. MCDs also work out more economical over a two-year period compared to disposable diapers, not to mention their enormous positive impact on the environment.

Preethi Sukumaran

At every stage, disposable products like diapers and sanitary napkins use up precious resources

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