My Cup Runneth Over and Other Common Concerns About Sustainable Menstruation Answered

A woman's periods are a topic cloaked in secrecy and shame in India, yet menstrual waste is on unabashed display in its public spaces. It's not rare to find dogs engaged in a tug-of-war with a used sanitary pad, and come monsoon, bloated pads float in rainwater puddles.

In her lifetime, a woman discards between 8,000 and 10,000 disposable sanitary pads which add up to about 150 kgs of solid waste. A 2013 estimate by Down to Earth magazine puts India's annual waste from soiled pads at 9,000 mega tonnes or 432 million soiled pads a year. That's enough to cover a landfill as big as 30 football fields!

India's already overburdened waste management infrastructure has little room left to handle its sanitary waste. Since disposable pads and tampons are non-biodegradable, the twin destinations for them are street corner piles and landfills. Pads strewn in the open are either eaten by stray animals or end up clogging drains. Often, they are openly burnt, releasing toxic fumes. Most sanitary waste ends up in landfills where it mixes with other kinds of waste to pollute soil and water.

The movement to promote sustainable alternatives for menstrual hygiene is gaining steam in India but, faced with the misinformation and taboos surrounding these options, change is slow. This Menstrual Hygiene Day, we're addressing a few common questions about menstrual cups and reusable sanitary pads so it becomes easier to make the move away from disposables.

1. Aren't they a step back for the modern woman?

Disposable pads have always been promoted as a symbol of women's liberation, progress, even success. But, in their many plastic layers they conceal a dark truth about women's health. The polymers, bleaches, odour neutralisers and absorbent gels making up disposables remain in direct, prolonged contact with sensitive vulval tissue which absorb the chemicals into the body. The Women's Voices for the Earth Report 'Chem-Fatale' attributes the chemicals in feminine hygiene products to a damaging health effects - from vaginal dryness and allergic rash to hormone disruption, reproductive disorders and cancer.

The messaging linking disposables to women's empowerment somehow forgot about the rights of waste workers, largely women, who manually collect soiled pads and ragpickers who sort through them by hand. “We open sacks and there are soiled sanitary napkins in newspapers, human excreta in polythene, shards of glass, syringes or nails. We cut ourselves, develop rashes and infection," a ragpicker told IndiaSpend earlier this month. Their lack of protective gear makes them susceptible to hepatitis, HIV, bacterial and other infections from handling bio-medical waste. As more and more disposable pads flood the market with a promise of 'convenience', the burden of dealing with the discards falls on poor, low caste women workers at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

 A vintage advertisement for disposable sanitary pads

A vintage advertisement for disposable sanitary pads

2. Menstrual cups overflow

A cup can be worn safely for up to 12 hours before they begin to leak. As a new user, begin by checking your cup every 4 to 6 hours to gauge your flow until you know how often the cup should be emptied. Leaks may occur on heavy days or if worn for longer than 12 hours, but can be contained with cotton panty liners.

3. Aren't cloth pads a pain to clean?

No. Soak the used pads in cold water to remove stains and wash with regular laundry soap. Drying the pad in sunlight minimises chances of odour and risk of infection. At work or while travelling, cloth pads can be easily stashed away in a bag in a compact roll until they are to be washed.

 Their ease of disposal was a factor that made disposable pads attractive.

Their ease of disposal was a factor that made disposable pads attractive.

4. Why are cups so expensive?

Yes, a cup can cost between Rs. 800 and Rs. 1600 depending on the brand. However, it is a one time investment on a product reusable for at least 10 years. Compare this with the cost of disposable pads which, assuming a woman menstruates for 40 years of her life for an average of 3 - 5 days every month, may cost her about 1,700 every year ( a pack of 15 disposables costs Rs. 145), repeated over her lifetime.

Similarly, 5-6 cloth pads cost about Rs. 1200, can last a woman through her cycle and are reusable for up to 5 years.

5. Are cloth pads and menstrual cups really safe?

Cloth pads are made of cotton. If washed and dried thoroughly, they pose no risk of infection. They are also biodegradable which makes them a low risk in the environment. Menstrual cups are made of medical grade silicone. Unlike tampons which dry out vaginal fluid while absorbing blood, menstrual cups only collect the fluid which removes any risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome associated with tampons and the chafing and irritation caused by disposable pads. Moreover, since cups collect and keep the menstrual fluid out of contact with the body, they are far more hygienic than pads which soak in the blood and keep it in close contact with the body for several hours. Read a gynaecologist's opinion on switching to sustainable menstrual products.

6. Cups are hard to insert

Cups may take a couple of cycles to get used to but women who've switched over to them report feeling more comfortable even while exercising, travelling and sleeping with none of the worries about leaks, rash and chafing that come up disposables. Cups come in various sizes, styles and thickness for different body types and intensity of flow. There's also a noticeable absence of the foul odour that used disposables carry because both cups and cloth pads keep the genital area well-ventilated and prevent the growth of bacteria. They can be worn while using the toilet, swimming, playing intense sport and exercising.

"Think of cups like contact lenses which take some initial getting used to but are more comfortable than wearing spectacles", says Bangalore-based gynaecologist Dr. Meenakshi Bharath. Online forums such as Hygiene and You and Sustainable Menstruation India provide support and tutorials to women looking to transition to menstrual cups.

7. The stretchy truth about the hymen

Any vigorous physical activity can stretch or rupture the hymen in young girls and virgins. But young women all over the world use menstrual cups with ease. For women with intact hymens, menstrual cups maybe hard to insert at first and could rupture the hymen. Cloth pads make a better alternative until you're comfortable using cups.

8. What's biodegradable about silicone?

Just like plastic sanitary pads, silicone isn't biodegradable or recyclable but because cups can be used for more than 10 years, they generate far less waste than disposable pads and tampons. Being an inert material, silicone does not react with other types of waste in landfills and pose hazards. To dispose of the cup, cut it up into small pieces and treat it as reject waste.

Featured image: Flickr CC/ menstruationstasse.net

Compiled with inputs from Green the Red, a movement to promote awareness about sustainable menstruation alternatives in India.