Article by Pooja Uthappa (with contributions by Devyani Trivedi and Yamini Chandrasekaran)
From my conversations with other women, I have realized that there is a general lack of awareness about environment-friendly and safer alternatives to sanitary napkins. While sanitary napkins are the norm, more eco-friendly alternatives are currently available in the market, with women slowly and steadily embracing these new options of menstrual hygiene.
The environmental impact of sanitary napkin usage is now common knowledge. Sanitary napkins are generally manufactured with raw materials such as cotton mixed in with other artificial absorbent materials, and layered with plastic lining. Their disposal has a huge impact on the environment, with the napkins themselves in some cases affecting the health of individuals. This is because the cotton used in a sanitary napkin is bleached to make it look more ‘white’, with the process causing some leftover contamination from dioxins. This may therefore have an adverse impact on the sensitive parts of our bodies in the longer term. Disposal of soiled sanitary napkins is a major concern too, especially in a developing country like ours where the municipal waste management system does not utilize technology-based or even practical solutions. Sadly, municipal workers and the waste pickers are often in physical contact with soiled sanitary napkins. As a consequence, they may be exposed to E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, HIV and other harmful microorganisms that cause hepatitis and tetanus. Additionally, open burning of sanitary napkin waste is very common in urban and rural settings, leading to harmful chemicals (dioxins and furans from the plastic linings, absorbent gel, and bleached cotton) being released into the atmosphere.
Personal hygiene programs initiated by various stakeholders including the Government of India, especially in rural parts of the country, are advocating adoption of sanitary napkins. However, the management and disposal of used sanitary napkins is hardly being addressed by these programs. This is especially important because, in rural areas where waste management systems are rudimentary at the best, this could lead to bigger ecological issues over the long run.
Having discussed why sanitary napkin- usage is not the healthiest or an environmentally sound choice for personal hygiene, here are some of the safer alternatives that have gained much attention in recent times:
1 Menstrual cup
The menstrual cup is a bell-shaped cup made of medical grade silicone that is used to collect the menstrual fluid. It is non-allergic and safe. Once inserted, the rim of the cup acts as a seal and collects menstrual fluid. One can go up to 12 hours without a need to drain the cup. To dispose of the collected menstrual liquid, the cup is removed and emptied after which it is rinsed. After rinsing the cup, it is ready for use again. A single cup lasts a few years and usually costs around 700-800 rupees, although imported brands may cost a bit more. There are many different brands of menstrual cups available in the market, especially online. The Shecup works well for me. You may check out the various brands from the links provided below:
2 Cloth pad
The cloth pad, as the name suggests is a washable and reusable cotton pad. Eco femme has both stitched and foldable varieties available. I often distribute this to women who are already comfortable with using cloth (mostly the household help).
The cloth quality is carefully manufactured keeping the special purpose in mind. Read stories of women across the globe switching to the cloth pads here:
3 Biodegradable Sanitary Napkins
For those who consider the above options challenging, or not suitable for their needs, and plan to continue using sanitary napkins, they may consider the option of biodegradable sanitary napkins. These napkins do not use any chemicals and are made of natural materials such as cotton, bamboo etc. (there are organic options too!) and are therefore bio-degradable. However their disposal could still be an issue, especially in the urban areas. Two brands that I am familiar with are:
a) Anandi Pad: http://www.aakarinnovations.com/
b) Organ(y)c: http://biovea.net/in
An individual’s hygiene and health choices are obviously a matter of personal choice and comfort. The above mentioned alternatives offer us the option to reduce our impact on the environment. A recent campaign by 2bin1bag.in called “Green the red and don’t leave babies in shit” also brings home the same message (http://www.2bin1bag.in/sustainable-hygiene).
Can we dispose sanitary napkins safely? On a different note, when looking at how to manage sanitary waste, I came across an initiative by a businessman from Gujarat, Shyam Bedekar, who has designed an incinerator called “Ashuddhi-nashak” for easy disposal of sanitary napkins. Many government schools have started using small and easy-to-use incinerators such as Napiburn and Ashuddi-nashak with encouragement from the Government of India (under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme) and UNICEF. Other companies such as ER Ventures (from Chennai) and the VTS Exports (makers of Reprocide) also sell small incinerators. While these companies offer a quick solution for disposal, the environmental impact of burning plastic-containing sanitary napkins remains a concern.
These small incinerators burn napkins at temperatures lower than 800 degree Celsius, typically considered the lower temperature cut-off for incinerators used to burn health care waste (according to WHO guidelines). Dioxins and furans are improperly broken down at lower temperatures, and in trace amounts can still affect human health. Companies that incinerate health care waste in Bangalore, also offer services to pick up and incinerate sanitary waste. Use of health care waste incinerators may be the better alternative for the safe disposal of sanitary napkins.
References & Further Reading: