Menstruation is now mainstream. 2017 saw various discourses about periods around the world – be it about period poverty, exclusion, tax-free legislation, menstrual leaves or switching to reusables.
In India, we are in challenging times with temple entry debates and the aggressive promotion of disposables and incinerators under government schemes. Popular media welcomed a seemingly useful solution of bio-degradable menstrual pads by local innovators using natural fibres. Dia Mirza, UNEP Goodwill Ambassador also voiced her support for the cause of biodegradables as a solution to tackle the waste issues from commercial sanitary napkins and tampons.
So, what are biodegradables?
“Traditional plastic is made from petroleum-based raw materials. Some say bioplastics—made from 20 percent or more of renewable materials—could be the solution to plastic pollution. The often-cited advantages of bioplastic are reduced use of fossil fuel resources, a smaller carbon footprint, and faster decomposition. Bioplastic is also less toxic and does not contain bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disrupter that is often found in traditional plastics.”
Bioplastics can be just biodegradable, compostable or oxo biodegradable – all industry terms for bio-plastics. Be it agriculture residue-based, or corn starch and natural fibre-based, these products cannot simply be thrown away and expected to just ‘disappear’ in natural soil. They pose more problems in landfills, especially in densely populated urban centres where space for effective disposal is limited, and where biodegradables end up being mixed with other kinds of waste, significantly reducing their degradability. Experiments by some biodegradable pad users to compost these products in home composting units did not show any significant decomposition even after 10 months. Besides, these plastics also threaten food production systems by occupying large areas of land previously used to grow crops for human consumption.
Most of these compostable or biodegradable products need controlled industrial heating processes for treatment, failing which they do serious harm like ozone depletion due to methane release. If mixed with traditional plastics at disposal sites, they reduce the efficiency of the recycling process. And, if derived from genetically modified crops such as maize or wheat, they threaten the natural ecosystem itself.
Then why are these products being promoted as a solution?
Compared to traditional plastics which are fossil fuel-based, bio-plastic definitely paints a greener picture since it decomposes within weeks or months as opposed to the centuries that traditional plastics take to break down. There’s also a lot of scientific interest and funding to develop bioplastics (just as in the case of biofuels) and microbial technology around them. All of these however remain in initial stages of development and research. The reality is that most bioplastics that enter the market, especially in India, are still of poor make and pose problems of disposal.
Instead of taking on the inherent problems of our use-and-throw culture, bioplastics become an easy conscience-fix for consumers who want to go ‘eco-friendly’. Only a deeper look at the life cycle of these products (from production to disposal) and more information around their designs (that are often hidden under complicated patent laws) will help a user make an informed choice. It is also yet to be disclosed if these biodegradable pads in India, whose coating is made of bioplastics, also substitute the absorbent filler material inside with non-toxic materials.
The silence around the health rights of women and menstruating persons has paved the way for corporations and R&D to prioritise profit motives around the products or services offered. At the root of this human rights violation is our own neglect and shame associated with this perfectly normal monthly bleeding cycle. Unless we raise such questions to demand better menstrual health and hygiene care, there will only be more false, green-washed solutions that make headlines but only further the environmental crisis.
Shradha Shreejaya is a graduate in Biochemistry and has a Masters degree in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. Her previous work has been in the areas of national environmental policies, waste management and sanitation in Tamil Nadu, zero waste and climate action in Kerala. She is also the founding campaigner at the Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective, and tends to brood with a book on her couch when not doing any of the above. You can follow her writing on https://medium.com/@shradhashreejaya