An uncomfortable but scary truth

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

Updated - June 10, 2016 03:05 am IST

Published - April 12, 2013 06:11 pm IST

NEW DELHI, 07/01/2012: Bio medical waste incinerator at Okhla near Sukhdev Vihar which is causing health problems to nearby residents,  in New Delhi on January 07,  2012.  Photo: V. Sudershan

NEW DELHI, 07/01/2012: Bio medical waste incinerator at Okhla near Sukhdev Vihar which is causing health problems to nearby residents, in New Delhi on January 07, 2012. Photo: V. Sudershan

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.

Reusable sanitary towels

Two options exist for concerned women who want to explore healthier and more sustainable options for sanitary towels.

The first is the 'She Cup', worn internally and made from silicone. It is designed like a cup that collects the menstrual blood. It can be worn for 12 hours or more and can hold nearly a quarter of the average monthly discharge at any point in time. Once full, the contents of the cup can simply be emptied into the toilet, and the cup can be cleaned and worn again.

The second option is reusable sanitary napkins made from cloth. The design and use of these cloth napkins is similar to disposables, and they provide absorbency by using many layers of cotton.

They have options for heavy and light flow days and a combination of the two can fully substitute disposable napkins every month. They are easy to care for, and can even be washed in a washing machine after soaking and removing all the menstrual discharge. Here again, the reusable napkins protect the user from coming in contact with harmful chemicals found in disposable napkins.

The thought of switching completely to reusable options in diapers and sanitary towels may seem daunting at first. But every small change you make will have a cascading effect, positively impacting forests, water, air, the city you live in, the air you breathe, and your very health.

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