Editor’s Note: This month, that is May 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Menstrual Health, where we invite various articles about various experiences that revolve around menstruation or the absence of the same. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pieces of old clothes, ash, rags, sand or wood pulp were the most common household items used by menstruators in India before the introduction of affordable sanitary pads. Over the last decade, with the help of entertainment industries, improvement in technology, government initiatives and menstrual activism, there has been a rise in the usage of single use sanitary pads in India.
Advertisements in India focused solely on sanitary pads and its portable and discrete nature of packaging. Low cost pads have proven to be the inexpensive solution to help menstruators in reducing unsanitary and unhygienic practices. The appeal of throwaway culture attracted menstruators as they started feeling more liberated and fuss free. However, with the increase in generation, disposal management of plastic pads and its ill effects on menstrual health and environment have become a huge concern for our society.
Now, the major question that arises is, how can we have safe and green periods?
The Unsustainability Issue
Health and environment are the two sides of the same coin. Our bodies are totally constructed from the environment and our lifestyle choices often impact the ecosystem. India has more than 330 million menstruators. 36% of them use sanitary napkins which are either locally or commercially produced resulting in disposal of about 21,780 million pads annually. Huge amounts of energy is used to produce and transport these single use pads which take 500 years to disintegrate. The main problem lies in the raw materials that are used. Production of a sanitary pad requires majorly three raw materials:
- Inorganic cotton: Known as the ‘thirstiest crop’, cotton is an essential raw material used in the production. It requires almost 6 pints of water for a little bud to grow and is saturated with pesticides and insecticides to keep cotton from being attacked by pests or from rotting.
- Cellulose: Cellulose is a great absorbent used in pads to enhance absorbability and reduce the growth of bacteria. It is extracted from plants and trees (majorly sugarcane), resulting in a lot of plant waste. Moreover, the liquid waste generated during the process contains pectin, hemicellulose and lignin which are very harmful if dumped in water bodies.
- Polypropylene and polyethylene: They are synthetic fibers used to make the packaging and in the pad to neutralize odours. A packet of pads comes in plastic packaging, with each single use pad having its own plastic cover and removable adhesive plastic strips inside.
Other materials include bleach to make the pads look whiter and other chemicals like dioxin, chlorine and rayon which pose a major threat to the menstrual health of people. It can result in issues ranging from itchiness, dryness and soreness to life threatening diseases like cancer. Non-reusability of these pads essentially means that all the effort and materials are converted into a single 3 to 4 hours use.
Impact of menstrual waste disposal on the environment is becoming a widely recognised problem. While it is improving the quality of life of many menstruators, disposal of pads and tampons is leaving many vulnerable to health problems and polluting the environment on a large scale. Filling up the valuable space in landfills causes the toxins to soak in the soil and groundwater that we drink. It also puts the health of workers at risk. Burning them releases toxins in the atmosphere which is a leading cause of cancer, it also adversely affects aquatic plant and animal life if released in oceans. Reducing plastic footprint through conscious individual efforts is required in making menstruation sustainable.
Take Plastic Out of Your Period
The first step is to initiate conversations about the ill-effects of sanitary pads and opening people’s minds to the alternatives. Taboos around menstruation practices are deeply ingrained in the society from years of conditioning. Stigma around periods often leads to people facing harassment and objectification. Thus, when discussions happen around periods, the focus is often regarding its social, cultural and religious issues and its relation to the environment is rarely prioritised.
Secondly, it is important to look for alternatives that are safe, economical and eco-friendly- menstrual cups, cloth pads, tampons without applicators and made from natural fibers. However, these alternatives carry certain inhibitions with them due to which people prefer using the conventional option – sanitary pads.
A menstrual cup is a 5 centimetres long made up of medical grade silicone and is inserted inside the vagina. It forms a seal with vaginal walls and doesn’t leak. It collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it. The major fear that most people, especially teenagers, face while using them is of inserting the cup which might tear the hymen thus taking away their ‘virginity’. Due to lack of awareness, inserting something in the vagina is considered unsafe.
However, hymen is an elastic tissue which generally stretches and does not tear with the insertion of a cup. Overcoming the mental block of insertion might take some time to get used to. These are cost effective as they cost around 800 rupees and one cup lasts for 10 years, saving years’ worth of raw materials, energy, cost and waste generation.
Earlier, menstruators used cut out cloth pieces during periods and due to the increased risk of catching bacterial infection, it was discouraged. With the new age reusable cloth pads, that is not an issue. These pads have wings, are leak proof, hypoallergenic and comfortable. People are reluctant to cloth pads as they need to be washed, sterilized and dried properly. It is an added effort but one that will prove to be beneficial in the longer run. They also have more shelf life in comparison to single use pads. A set of 6-8 pads can easily be used for 5-6 years making it economically feasible.
Choose Your Planet. Own Your Periods. Break the Stigma.
If you’re a menstruator reading this, remember that you can alone save lakhs of kilograms of menstrual waste. Don’t let people sell you shame. Choose sustainable menstruation.
Featured Image Source: My Planet Blog