Getting Past Taboos to Tackle Environmental Issues
Menstrual waste presents its own special challenges. And the first challenge is opening the dialogue in a country where menstruation is generally not openly discussed.
This air of secrecy around a fairly basic hygiene product is a result of the blanket taboo on sexuality pervading 21st century India. Ironically, this taboo stems from ancient Vedic traditions originally intended to aid women in managing menstruation. The monthly period was considered a sacred time during which women isolated themselves in order to rest and rejuvenate their bodies. Over the years, however, this practice has morphed into baseless restrictions that prevent women from participating in routine daily activities on account of their bodies being “impure” while menstruating.
– Mehak Siddiqui, “Menstruation is Not a Drawing-Room Topic”
Given the sheer mathematics of menstruation, the average woman could use about ten thousand disposable menstrual management products (sanitary napkins or tampons) in her lifetime. Most disposable sanitary napkins (pads) are made from synthetic materials, which can take over 500 years to decompose.
In India today, there are over 350 million women and girls of reproductive age. If all of them used sanitary napkins and disposed of them in the garbage, almost ninety billion cubic feet of landfill space would be needed just to accommodate their menstrual waste. This puts an untenable demand on already overburdened landfills.
And it doesn’t even take into account the menstrual waste generated by multiple generations of women.
This largely non-biodegradable waste is cumulative. Even as older women begin menopause, and younger women reach their menarche, the menstrual waste of prior generations will still be occupying landfill space.
Avoiding Waste: Reusable Resources
The best way to manage menstrual waste is to avoid creating it in the first place. In many cases, this means the use of menstrual cloths, or store-bought cloth pads.
Eco Femme, a social enterprise based in Tamil Nadu, sells reusable cloth pads stitched by a collective of rural women. Eco Femme offers the “Pad for Pad” programme. For every consumer purchase of a pad, Eco Femme donates one cloth pad to a low-income Indian girl.
Goonj, based in Delhi, similarly creates “MY Pad” cloth napkins through their Not Just a Piece of Cloth initiative. Like the Eco Femme’s “Pad for Pad” programme, Goonj also donates their product to women in need.
Cloth is fairly economical. It is reusable for many months—if not years.
Cloth produces very little waste when compared to non-compostable disposable pads. Although water is needed to wash them, reusable cloths or cloth pads are still ecologically sound.
The challenge comes in cleaning these menstrual cloths in a safe manner.
Particularly in the rural areas, strong taboos keep Indian women from washing and drying their used menstrual cloths freely.
In many places, women have told me how [their menstrual cloth] is dried inside the house in some dark corner so that no man sees it, how it is stored in the roof or some hole in the ground so that men and children don’t access it, and how many women in one household share the same cloth. These practices, without doubt, are likely to create health issues when the cloth is not fully dry, exposed to sunlight to kill germs and unhygienically stored and shared. But the solution is not in blindly telling girls to not use cloth, but instead telling them how to use it right.
– Mythri Speaks blog, “Menstrual Hygiene is not about Sanitary Napkins”
How can women in this situation hygienically and privately wash their menstrual cloths or reusable pads?
The Flow of New Ideas
Specifically targeted at girls living in poverty, Flo is a complete system for washing and drying used menstrual cloths and pads. The design is fairly simple: Two interlocking plastic bowls—the “washer” component—clamp together to hold the used cloth pads, as well as the water and soap.
The bowl assembly is equipped with a port for pouring water in and out of the washer. Rubber stoppers prevent water leakage.
A string is pulled through from each side of the washer basket. The user twirls the strings on the outside of the bowls to create a “spin cycle” for the washer.
Once the washing and rinsing are complete, the rubber cap can be removed to let the used wash water run out. A few more spins of the washer bowls help the cloths or pads inside to dry more quickly.
To dry the pad, the user disassembles the washing bowls. The wire basket inside can be used to hang the cloths or pads outdoors for drying. A simple covering of breathable clean cloth, such as burlap, can be draped over the hanging basket like a lampshade.
Because the Flo washer unit is self-contained, it effectively concentrates the wash water on the soiled cloths. Thus, less water is needed for the washing process.
Because the Flo drying unit gives women a mechanism to privately hang their menstrual cloths outside to dry, the cloths can dry thoroughly in open air and with the warmth of the sun.
The Flo kit also comes with a carrying pouch, which can be pinned under the user’s clothing. The pouch allows a young girl or lady to discreetly transport both used and clean cloth pads.
This extra privacy is especially important for adolescent girls, who often face ridicule from schoolmates during their menses. Simple inventions like this carrying pouch can make a world of difference for young girls, letting them be more confident and comfortable with their own natural cycles.
Collection instead of Absorption
Traditionally, women have managed their menses with products that absorb their menstrual flow.
A relatively new concept is the menstrual cup. Like a tampon, it is worn internally. Unlike a tampon, however, it does not absorb menstrual flow.
Made of medical-grade materials, menstrual cups actually collect the flow. In most cases, they can be worn for about six to twelve hours without needing to be emptied.
Menstrual cups produce very little waste. A properly-maintained menstrual cup can last up to ten years.
The average woman menstruates for about forty years of her life. About four menstrual cups would be needed to cover that entire four-decade span, versus 10,000+ sanitary napkins.
Not only are menstrual cups better for the environment, but they are more economical. This fact alone might encourage their use.
Two big hurdles stand in the way of widespread menstrual cup use: Educating women about the use of internal menstrual management, and overcoming challenges of hygienic use in areas of extreme poverty and water scarcity. As Sakhi pads creator Swati Bedekar said in an interview, “Hygiene levels among both rural and urban poor are so deplorably low that it’s unthinkable for them to use the [menstrual] cup. They often don’t have sufficient water to bathe themselves, so washing and maintaining a menstrual cup would be a luxury they have no access to.”
Despite the many economic and ecological advantages to using menstrual cloths or reusable cloth pads, disposable sanitary napkins tend to be more convenient in certain circumstances.
Disposable sanitary napkins can give Indian women a great deal of freedom. For instance, a woman who is travelling away from home for several days during her menses may not have facilities to wash out the cloths daily as needed. By providing reliable, hygienic menstrual management, disposable pads allow young women to travel freely and to pursue their normal activities while maintaining their privacy and dignity.
This freedom is indeed a boon. But there is a downside: Millions of women using disposable pads means an enormous demand on waste management resources. Every single month, about nine thousand tonnes of menstrual waste are produced in India, totalling about 108,000 tonnes of menstrual waste annually.
Disposable menstrual products promise convenience to those who use them, and economic improvement to those who produce and sell them. In return, disposables deliver millions of tonnes of intractable waste.
The Flames of Controversy
The Indian government currently encourages women to burn used disposable pads in mini-incinerators. Mini-incinerators, such as this one, burn the pads down to ash—destroying blood-borne pathogens in the process.
UNICEF also supports the use of mini-incinerators for the destruction of menstrual waste. In fact, UNICEF has participated in the building of these mini-incinerators in schools in Tamil Nadu, in the girls’ toilet blocks.
Most of these incinerators in public places are electrically operated. A newer spin on the incinerator has a more old-fashioned look: Terracotta and cement incinerators, such as the Ashudhinashak incinerator designed by Swati and Shyam Bedekar, bring the average rural Indian woman a more affordable alternative to industrial incinerators.
Terracotta incinerators are about 93% cheaper than industrial models. They require no electricity to run. Their design may release fewer emissions during the incineration process. (Actual emissions statistics are not readily available.)
Incineration prevents millions of sanitary napkins from filling up landfills. And it helps keep the waste from spreading blood-borne diseases.
However, using incinerators to dispose of menstrual waste has likely created a more insidious problem.
Since most pads are made with plastic, their incineration can also produce toxic fumes. Unregulated mini-incinerators, burning at too low of a temperature, exacerbate the toxicity. In the long term, this means an increase in respiratory illness, as well as a possible increase in cancer cases.
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) details many of the hazards associated with incinerator use in this report.
Dioxins and furans are among the most deadly toxins known to science, being highly toxic even in trace quantities. When pads are burnt these toxins are released into the atmosphere and can travel a long way from the point of emission.
– Eco Femme blog: “Breaking the Silence on the Incineration of Menstrual Hygiene Waste”
Solving the Disposable Waste Dilemma
Many products that are inherently biodegradable in soil, such as tree trimmings, food wastes, and paper, will not biodegrade when we place them in landfills because the artificial landfill environment lacks the light, water and bacterial activity required for the decay process to begin. […] When the conditions needed for biodegradable materials to naturally biodegrade are not provided, major garbage problems are the result.
– GreenGood.com, “Biodegradable and Compostable Definitions”
Education to Spur Innovation
The taboos that keep women out of temples, out of kitchens, and sometimes even completely isolated during their menses have also allowed ignorance about the basic biology of menstruation to fester. Shame over menstruation causes women to needlessly suffer with infections and other gynaecological issues. The true shame is that cultural attitudes toward a natural biological process—not the process itself—cause this unnecessary suffering.
In turn, conversation about a critical issue—how to manage mountains of menstrual waste—is not given the attention it deserves.
Socially-conscious manufacturers of menstrual pads, such as Aakar Innovations, Saathi, Eco Femme, and Goonj, educate the public about the facts of menstruation. In a culture with a long history of taboos and superstitions concerning menstruation, such education is crucial. As long as menstruation is a taboo subject, the serious environmental impacts of managing menstrual waste in India cannot be openly discussed.
And the subject must be discussed. The amount of menstrual waste generated is simply staggering.
For such an enormous problem, however, relatively few innovative solutions seem to have been devised. Innovation in menstrual waste sanitation lags behind other areas of sanitation, such as municipal solid waste treatment, sewage treatment, and water treatment.
Choices for Menstrual Management
- Cloth pads, a commercialized version of the cloths and rags traditionally used for menstrual management, are naturally eco-friendly. Innovations such as Mariko Higaki Iwai’s Flo kit bring the promise of sanitary, dignified, and discreet menstrual management to millions of women, even in places where water is scarce.
- Menstrual cups, like cloth pads, produce very little waste. But since they are worn internally, women must learn how to use them hygienically.
- Incinerators eliminate waste in landfills and destroy blood-borne pathogens in menstrual waste. However, they are still controversial, as they may be responsible for increases in respiratory disease and cancer.
- Compostable or biodegradable sanitary napkins are probably the most promising disposable pad innovations, provided they are given proper conditions to break down into their raw materials.
There may not be a single solution to the problem of menstrual waste, any more than there could be a universally-accepted type of menstrual management. But there must be ongoing efforts to manage the waste—in ways that are safe, sanitary, and healthy both today and in years to come.
LEAF Society is continuing to educate local communities and spread the word about the importance of menstrual hygiene and sanitation. We hope that you will join us in this conversation. For women and society, for the environment, and for future generations, the stakes are too high to stay silent.
Up next on LEAF Society’s blog: The impact of poor sanitation on India’s water supply, and how innovations in sanitation can overcome water contamination and pollution.
Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.