Unlearning Menstruation: Sanitary Waste in India

Aug 13, 2018 | Blog, Environment

Every year India produces 9000 tonnes of sanitary waste…

…which is about 90% as heavy as the Eiffel Tower.  And like the famous French structure, our sanitary “footprint” will far outlive our own lives, and remain for the generations to come.

It is becoming common knowledge that our pads will spend the next hundreds of years breaking down in landfills or oceans.  Yet, this is not the end of the story.

Unbeknownst to many, from the landfills and the oceans, the pads make a return in the form of microplastics and chemicals.  In this way, hidden from sight, we find them in our homes, food, air and water. At the end of the day, the destination of disposable pads, is in our own bodies.

At this juncture, our choice of menstrual products need not only be driven by discretion and convenience: they can become informed acts about the world we want to live in.


Plastic Pads

Sanitary waste is problematic because of the “ingredients” behind disposable pads.  Conventional pads are 90% plastic; even the “fabric” upper layer is a plastic woven sheet.  Add to that the packaging, plastic wings and adhesives, super absorbent (plastic) polymer gels, and each pad is the equivalent of four plastic bags.

Plastic takes 500 to 800 years to degrade.  Degrade simply means breaking into “very small pieces of plastic”.  It may appear to disappear, however nothing has changed except for the size of the plastic.


As put by one scientist, “the smaller those pieces get, the more places they can go.”  These places include the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume.  To be more specific: microplastics have been found in the tissues of fish and shellfish, sea salt, tap water, honey, household dust and even German beer.

A recent United Kingdom study found that people could be swallowing as much as 1000 tiny plastic particles with every meal, from the household dust that falls on our plates.  And the water you drink with your dinner? Water samples collected from five continents found that more than 80% contained plastic fibres.  To date, the effects of microplastics on human health remains disturbingly unknown.


FROM THIS: disposable sanitary pads made primarily of plastic. TO THIS: tiny plastic fragments found in the ocean.


Waste management in India

In India, there is currently no standardised method of sanitary waste disposal.

INDIA: A sanitation worker clearing a sewer blocked by disposable pads and diapers flushed down toilets. These workers often have inadequate tools and come into contact with human excreta and waste with their bare hands. This is a major health hazard, and has even resulted in deaths. Source: Earth and Us

In theory, sanitary waste falls within two categories; plastic and biomedical waste.  Classified as biomedical waste due to the presence of blood, and it would mean pads are pre-treated before disposal, collected regularly and incinerated.  Classified as a plastic, and pad producers and brand owners would have a responsibility to contribute to the collection of the pads they produce.

The reality, however, is vastly different.  Disposable pads fall under the Solid Waste Management Rules as Domestic Hazardous Waste – meaning they can be thrown out with household garbage.  Unless wrapped properly or marked, this practice poses a health risk to the collectors who sort through waste. Under these Rules, pad manufacturers’ sole responsibility is to provide a pouch (often plastic) to wrap used pads in before disposing of them with dry waste.

In rural locations the problem of disposal is compounded.  In the absence of waste collection services, individuals resort to burning, burying or flushing used pads.  According to one study in a village in Jharkhand, the majority of women do not have access to a private bathroom and dispose of pads in the same pond where they bathe.


Burn baby burn

In the urgency to address sanitary waste, the government has promoted the use of incinerators.  Seizing this government directive, corporations and social entrepreneurs have developed and promoted mini incinerators for public, school or home usage (check out the Eco Femme blog).  Unfortunately, as one author bluntly put it;

“Many incinerators are not really incinerators, they are just facilities to burn trash.”

Burning and incineration are considerably different.  Burning is uncontrolled and unregulated: is is the smouldering heaps you see on the side of the road.  Incineration is a controlled process: burning at specific temperature in contained spaces with monitored emissions. This is to ensure that temperatures are high enough to burn toxic chemicals and prevent them from dispersing into the atmosphere.  Burning plastic at temperatures less than 800 degrees Celsius releases toxic pollutants such as dioxins.

Dioxins are carcinogenic chemicals linked to problems with reproductive health and child development.


As of yet, there are no provisions to monitor the emissions from small scale or mini incinerators, leaving concerns they are operating in unsafe conditions.

A final note on incineration: whilst eliminating the biomedical hazard, this strategy does not eradicate waste.  As in the case of plastic, incineration simply reduces the mass of the waste. The remaining ash, some of which is highly toxic fly ash, also requires disposal and may be put in landfill.


Out of sight, out of mind

When it comes to disposable pads, waste management is premised on “out of sight out of mind”.  At best, it can only ever make plastic waste reduce in size and become invisible to the naked eye.  Once “invisible”- whether it be micro sized plastic particles, or the fine dust of incinerated fly ash – plastics are free to spread far beyond their point of disposal.


The way forward

“The easiest waste to manage, is the waste that we did not produce.”

India has an opportunity to forge an alternative path focused on reduction, rather than management, of sanitary waste.  And, in many ways, India is well equipped to make a change.

Only a fraction (between 12 – 58%) of the 355 million women of menstruating age in India use disposable pads.  With the government and organisations turning their focus on the remaining 50%, disposable products need not be the only answer.

India has a long tradition of sustainable and resourceful practices, and menstruation is no exception. The practice of using cloth pads during periods far predates disposable pads, which have only been around for the last 30 years.  Cloth pads can be used for 3 to 5 years, saving about 300 plastic bags worth of plastic. Natural material like cotton is biodegradable.  This means, at the end of their use, the cloth returns to nature and is broken down into the building blocks from which new living things can be made.  Today, as well as cloth pads, there are other sustainable menstrual products like menstrual cups and period panties (for more information, check out the Green the Red).

In the end, it boils down to choice.  Menstrual products and practices offer an opportunity to act decisively and meaningfully, every month.  Disposable pads not only affect directly affect our vaginal health, but also our overall health by altering the environment around us.  In the case of sanitary pads, it is an impact that lasts beyond our lifetime.  Who is responsible for our pads? We all are. This is an issue that transcends boundaries of time, space and gender.

The question is, what kind of world do we want to leave behind?  

One pad can be used for 3 to 5 years.

Each cloth pad saves saves 300 plastic bags worth of plastic.

A menstrual cup can be used for up to 10 years.


The points to take away:

  • Sanitary waste is a worldwide concern, largely because disposable pads are 90% plastic.
  • Plastic takes 500 – 800 years to “degrade”, which means to break down into smaller pieces.  The smaller the plastic becomes the more easily it can enter our homes, food, air and water.
  • In India, there is currently no standardised method of sanitary waste disposal.  In in interim, the government has proposed the incineration of pads.  Unless regulated, incineration can release toxic chemicals such as dioxin, a known carcinogen.  Mini incinerators may be unsafe because they do not reach high enough temperatures to destroy harmful emissions.
  • We can reduce sanitary waste by switching to reusable products like cloth pads and menstrual cups.


The general rule of thumb: if it is sustainable and safe for the environment, it is equally so for us!  Healthy and sustainable menstrual practices include menstrual cups and washable cloth pads.


By Lauren Chockman