Green the red: Making a case for sustainable menstrual hygiene products

A few years ago, I watched The Garbage Trap, a film by Atul Pethe depicting the plight of a sanitary worker in Pune. Although the law prohibits employing people for manual scavenging without proper safety gear, on a visit to any dumping ground you find hundreds of ragpickers and labourers opening the garbage bags of rich households, sans protective gear, to find human waste. Inhuman, isn't it?

A 2015 study shows that about 68 percent of New Delhi’s waste pickers injure themselves regularly and face severe health risks from constant exposure to air-borne bacteria and to smoke and fumes from open burning of waste. When we throw away a sanitary napkin after just a few hours of use, this is where it ends up - in the bare hands of waste pickers, many of whom are minors.

Burn or bury, they’re not going anywhere

The problem of solid waste management is already a nightmare and one sees many haphazard attempts to address it. A recent trend has been to promote disposable napkins and incinerators in schools and communities. Burning of pads may appear to be a great solution, but incinerators require fuel to produce and operate which only adds to their carbon footprint. It is argued that the ash may be scattered in fields or used to build roads. But, what about the harmful gases like sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide they release? As cities are growing and expanding, there is more trash which has to travel longer distances to reach the dumping ground. This means more diesel, more traffic and more smog! According to a recent article, plans are afoot to transport the trash of Bengaluru to KGF by train. Are these viable solutions?

Filthy rich

I used to wonder what I could do to alleviate this problem. I live in Bengaluru and four years ago, my apartment complex began segregating waste following the 2Bin1Bag method and composting all its wet waste. But, I found that the red bin still contained my monthly quota of about 12 sanitary pads. During my school days, I would use cloth at least for lighter days to minimise the spending on disposables. Once I started earning, my policy was 'Who has the time to wash cloth pads?' Because, as you get richer, you can afford not to worry about your waste and who handles it.

It is a well-known fact that as income level increases and as the middle and upper classes expand, so does the consumption of disposables and consequently, the amount of solid waste. In India, the number of women using disposable sanitary napkins and disposable diapers for babies is on the rise. Here's a simple estimate: The 2011 census pegs the number of women in the age group of 10 to 50 at 370 million. Even if 10 percent of these women use disposable sanitary napkins and each generates around 0.5 kgs of sanitary waste a month, the trash generated every month adds up to a whopping 18,500 tons!

Once I started earning, my policy was 'Who has the time to wash cloth pads?' Because, as you get richer, you can afford not to worry about your waste and who handles it.

Making the switch

Although the current state of waste management is lamentable, there is a ray of hope. A few positive experiments are on in India by environmentally conscious NGOs to promote sustainable feminine hygiene with reusable products such as washable cloth pads and menstrual cups.

Reusable cloth pads come in various shapes, sizes and attractive designs across brands. These can be washed in cold water with mild detergent and sun-dried. If properly washed and dried, these pads carry no odour or stains.

A menstrual cup is a small cup-shaped device that can be inserted into the vagina during periods. It collects the flow and can be emptied every 6 to 8 hours. It can be washed and re-inserted safely. Although menstrual cups are very comfortable and eco-friendly, awareness about them and acceptance is slow. It took me a few months to switch from disposable sanitary napkins to a menstrual cup. At first, I feared leakage and pain. However, for the past two years, I have not touched a disposable napkin. The cup has given me a lot of freedom and confidence!

Disposable sanitary napkins may be a convenient and 'smart' way to manage periods. There are however two major issues related with their prolonged use. One is that you need to buy them every month and the other one is rashes and itchiness. In low income groups, very few women can afford them, so they often tend to use the same pad for longer hours. This can lead to skin irritation and infection.  Any ultra-thin, super white pad contains bleaching agents and plastics making them the equivalent of four plastic bags. Further, the cotton layers contain glyphosate - a carcinogenic herbicide commonly sprayed on cotton crops.

Rash-free, trash-free periods are the way forward

There are three important reasons why a woman should opt for menstrual cups, in particular. They are good for reducing your footprint as you can use one cup for 5 to 10 years! Although cups cannot be composted or recycled, they help reduce the amount of garbage bring sent to landfills.

From a health perspective, cups are made of medical grade silicone or TPE (Thermoplastic elastomers) and are tested to be safe and non-reactive with the body. Several of them have even been approved by the FDA. Silicone is used for implants and for nipples on baby feeding bottles. Although, it may take a cycle or two to get used to a cup, after that, period days are just like any other day! If necessary, a reusable cloth pad or liner can be used against heavy flow and leakage.

A single cup can be used up to 10 years if taken good care of. Although, they are costly (prices range between Rs. 750 and Rs. 2000), one should note that the cost of one cup is equivalent to a few months' supply of sanitary napkins.

In many societies, the issue of a girl’s virginity comes in the way of cup adoption. In such cases, young girls can start off with cloth pads which, unlike disposable napkins, contain no bleaching agents and dioxins, before gradually moving to cups.

Green the Red Movement

Social media has been a great channel to spread awareness about safe, eco-conscious  menstrual practices. The Facebook community Sustainable Menstruation India (SMI) and the Menstrual Cups and Cloth Pads page are women-only communities maintained by enterprising women who guide others looking to transition to safer menstrual health. Priyanka Nagpal Jain’s popular videos and blogs on Hygiene and You have been translated into several Indian languages. Several brands of cups and cloth pads are available online and blogs and videos that offer advice on sustainable menstruation are many. Additionally, in January 2016, a few women passionate about sustainable menstruation came together during the women’s run, Bengaluru Pinkathon, to promote sustainable menstruation awareness through Pinkathon events across the country. This year, the movement was labeled ‘Green the Red’ Campaign.

Although there is a surge of enthusiastic women spreading awareness about this issue and the Green the Red movement is growing, there are challenges in alternative menstrual products gaining acceptance. There is a need for education and awareness at all levels.

Garbage dumps are bursting at their non-existent seams. If all of us can make a switch, it can truly reduce the burden of waste management on civic bodies. The best way to trash-free, rash-free and cash-free periods would to be choose reusable menstrual hygiene products.

Gauri is an independent educationist from Bengaluru. She is passionate about solid waste management and promotes sustainable living.