Finding sensible solutions to sanitary waste

Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is a hot topic these days. Whether in the form of stylishly advertised disposable sanitary products that vie with shampoos and vehicles for prime time viewership, or films on innovators who have created low-cost napkins, the taboo around the subject in India seems to be slowly disappearing — the operative word being slowly.

While the onset of puberty in girls is still a much-celebrated ritual across India, there is not much available by way of education or awareness on menstruation or feminine hygiene.

A burning issue

Disposable sanitary napkins (made of plastic components and treated with chemicals) replaced the traditional strips of ‘old’ cotton saris or dhotis from the 1970s onwards in India, manufactured and marketed by multinational FMCG corporations.

Finding sensible solutions to sanitary waste

The high cost of these branded sanitary napkins has in recent times created a boom in homegrown products that are more economically priced. The story of Arunachalam Murgunantham, a social entrepreneur from Coimbatore who set off a women’s empowerment revolution of sorts with his mini pad-making machines, is well known. It has been retold in the big ticket Bollywood release Pad Man, starring Akshay Kumar.

But while the movie may have appropriated the story’s Tamil focus and reset it in the Hindi heartland to create a feel-good film, the story of the low cost sanitary napkin still doesn’t have a happy ending, literally speaking.

The disposal of used sanitary napkins remains a contentious issue, especially in societies where MHM is a new concept and solid waste is not segregated at source.

Purpose-built incinerators to burn the used pads have become increasingly common in the wake of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan and the consequent comeptition among cities for cleanliness badges.

Tiruchirapalli in the heart of Tamil Nadu, is engaged in a high-profile drive to win the first spot in the annual National City Rating, put out by the Ministry of Urban Development and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The city slipped from third place in 2015-16 to sixth in all India ranking 2016-17. And the issue of how to deal with waste from sanitary napkins has gained greater urgency in this drive.

Finding sensible solutions to sanitary waste

As part of the drive, City Corporation Commissioner N. Ravichandran had made it mandatory for all public buildings, particularly multi-storey residential blocks, to have a sanitary napkin incinerator installed by March 31. However, compliance has been uneven. “We are conducting regular checks on residential buildings and women’s hostels to see if they have followed the order. We will be counselling the administrative committees of those buildings that have still to get the incinerators installed next week,” Mr. Ravichandran told The Hindu.

“The attitude towards these machines has changed over the years,” the Commissioner added. “From an earlier reluctance, now we can see building societies ready to make the incinerator a part of the infrastructure. Since we began our waste segregation at source from February 8, we have also installed sanitary pad incinerators in all the 23 waste management plants of the Corporation.”

While domestic incinerators are available online from ₹ 4,000 to ₹20,000, the use of these machines is far from ubiquitous given the untested technology and a lack of back-up services.

Social workers involved in MHM in Tamil Nadu’s rural and semi-urban Government Middle and Higher Secondary schools say that the unbranded electrical incinerators that authorities have installed tend to develop mechanical faults early on. Of the over 100 such machines that have been distributed, many are defunct because repair services are hard to find.

Irrespective of whether a sanitary napkin is branded or locally made, it’s disposal remains a huge problem with most being thrown in the open, buried, or flushed down drains.

Sustainable MHM

Local innovators have stepped into this rather bleak scenario and to offer ecologically sustainable solutions. Eco Femme, a women-led social enterprise based in Auroville in Puducherry has been producing and promoting washable cloth pads since 2010. These pads last for approximately 75 washes.

The group’s organic cotton flannel pads are made by 3 stitching units in Auroville and Bangalore. As many as 14,500 pads were sold at sub sidised prices directly and through Eco Femme’s partner organisations in 2016-17.

Started by Kathy Walkling, Jessamijn Miedema, Anita Budhraja, and Anbu Sironmani, Eco Femme originally aimed at exporting its pads to European countries based on feedback from Auroville’s multinational residents, but has since diversified into rural MHM programmes within India, especially in Tamil Nadu.

A Tiruchi-based water and sanitation NGO, Gramalaya, has come up with its own version of the reusable cloth pad that it distributes and sells under the ‘Feel Free’ brand.

“Though we have been in public sanitation for 31 years, we realised that adolescent girls were facing a problem of menstrual management only when we started working in rural schools, since 2015,” says S. Damodaran, founder and director of Gramalaya.

The ‘Feel Free’ cotton pads, developed in 2016, were tested for a year by Grmalaya’s 200 women staff before being launched, with learning material on MHM in English and Tamil, in 2017.

Over the past year, 30,000 of these pads have been distributed free through Gramalaya’s outreach programmes. A separate for-profit organisation markets the pads online and in export markets.

‘Feel Free’ pads use leftover knitted material or ‘banian’ cloth, sourced from garment factories in Tirupur. These are cut into layers and stitched together by tailors in self-groups guided by Gramalaya. There are 30 tailors, based in Thottiyam, Elurpatti, Balasamudram and Kolakudi villages near Tiruchi, who work full-time producing the pads. Around 3000 pads are produced every month.

Cloth pads must be washed and dried in direct sunlight.

“Many apartment blocks in cities like Chennai have prohibited the disposal of sanitary napkins even though they don’t have any alternative in place. In such cases, these reusable napkins are a real boon, because they can be washed and dried like the rest of the laundry,” says J. Geetha, director CSR Projects, Gramalaya.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 6:30:54 AM |

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