No more use and throw?

There is now a move to convince women to move to biodegradable menstrual products

Updated - April 08, 2018 12:32 pm IST

Published - April 08, 2018 12:02 am IST

Post the release of the film, Padman , there has been a lot of discussion on the need for proper menstrual products for women in India. But as important as this issue is, there are problems with the disposal of such over-the-counter personal hygiene products. Their contribution to immense generation of waste and pollution cannot be ignored.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 found that about 57.6% of Indian women use disposable napkins. If a woman uses two pads per day during each period (approximately five days in a month), then the total number of pads used each year (by this group) would be 44.9 billion pads per year. This is a mountain of sanitary waste. There is now a move to convince women to move to biodegradable products that will help tackle the problem of disposable products that contain plastic.

However, there are two issues with biodegradable products which merit discussion. While some argue that though napkins used by healthy women (that is, not sourced from hospitals and clinics) may be soiled with blood and bodily fluids, they are pathogen-free. Therefore, all such napkins are safe to compost along with other wet waste. Any plastics in them can then be removed from the generated compost and treated as non-recyclable plastic waste.

The counterargument is that composting soiled napkins would nevertheless require human contact which amounts to undignified labour. People are needed to handle this waste while pre-treating it (by mixing napkins with microbes, dry leaves and shredding). Further, biodegradable napkins which contain bleached cellulose and sheets made from corn starch would take much longer — up to six months — to compost.

This leaves incineration as the only other option to treat soiled napkins. But this process poses a fresh set of questions. In Bengaluru, for instance, those living in apartment blocks with more than 50 flats are required to arrange for the transportation and treatment of sanitary waste by certified incinerators. In the case of apartment blocks with fewer than 50 flats and individual houses, the local corporation is responsible for the collection and transportation of this waste to incinerators. However, given the poor state of monitoring, the effectiveness of this policy is questionable. The cost of incineration is also extremely high because of the cost of transportation. It works out to around ₹25-35 a kg, sometimes with a requirement of a minimum order of 100 kg a month.

Using sustainable products

The real problem in menstrual hygiene is that napkins, biodegradable or not, will result in the generation of waste. With the lack of adequate waste disposal machinery in India, the surmounting burden of disposing of pads may be too much to bear. In such a situation, we may have to move away from a culture of use-and-throw products altogether and adopt sustainable products that can be used, washed and reused.

There is growing acceptance for cloth-based reusable napkins. This can have a positive impact in terms of reducing the sheer volume of menstrual waste being generated each year. Another alternative is to use silicone cups that can be reused for at least 10 years and which require only washing with soap and water, with occasional sanitisation using warm water. Menstrual cups are available online and in pharmacies for as low as ₹300. Even without considering the high costs of sanitary waste incineration — if pads were available at ₹2 a pad (thanks to Padman ) — a woman would have to spend at least ₹2,400 over 10 years which is almost 10 times the cost of a menstrual cup.

These alternative sustainable products offer a way of averting burgeoning menstrual product waste. There are several companies that manufacture and promote sustainable products. If you are a woman, it is time to think about using sustainable products. Be your own superhero.

Durba Biswas and Megha Shenoy are at the Centre for Environment and Development, ATREE, Bangalore

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