It's a fact that plastics have invaded our lives. And while they are convenient for packaging and transportation, they are extremely toxic and harmful for the environment.
Many of our personal hygiene products also have plastic in them, and one of the biggest examples for these is sanitary pads. In fact, the ‘plastic shield’, that does not allow moisture and the blood to seep through, is the unique selling proposition for many of the manufacturers. Yes, the plastic covering and the shield does prevent embarrassing bloodstains during periods, but at what cost?
While there is no official data, several reports estimate that on an average about 9000 tonnes of menstrual waste is generated in India monthly, most of it in the form of sanitary pads. All these plastic-based sanitary pads are either flushed down toilets or thrown in the open as garbage along with other household waste. A large number of women in India use sanitary pads. A majority of the pads are plastic-based. According to Menstrual Health Alliance India, of the total sanitary waste generated in the country, about 45% is due to menstrual products, largely sanitary napkins.
There is no proper disposal system for menstrual waste either, and this is not merely a problem in India but also globally, especially developing countries.
Harmful for Health
Many of us have grown up using plastic-based sanitary napkins, oblivious to the harm that it does to the body.
When we menstruate, our body gets rid of blood and other body fluids. The plastic in the sanitary pads, while effectively trapping the moisture within, provides a breeding ground for bacterial and fungal infections. This can cause inflammation in the vagina and vulva, allergic reactions to the plastic, and irritation. It can also lead to pelvic inflammatory diseases, and in some cases, cervical cancer. It all depends on the type of plastic used and how long the pads are worn. It can also lead to compromising the reproductive health of the individuals, and affect their fertility in the long term.
With plastic-based pads, it is necessary that they are changed frequently to avoid bacterial build-up. Most often, this cannot or does not happen, especially if there are no toilets or privacy available or one is on a long journey with no access to disposal systems.
There is very little awareness about the use of plastic-based sanitary pads and the impact of their long-term use on our health.
Harmful for the Environment
Sanitary napkins are often thrown into ponds, rivers and lakes, contaminating the water bodies and the organisms there, or thrown in the open, choking drains and polluting the soil.
While the plastic in sanitary pads does not degrade easily, the menstrual waste itself, consisting of the blood and body fluids, is another source of pollution that can lead to deadly diseases. Rag pickers often handle these sanitary products with their bare hands and can easily become infected, in case the blood belongs to an HIV-infected person.
The blood on the pads can collect pathogens, and these can not only infect the soil but also the water supplies in the cities and villages, especially if the water pipes are not properly insulated.
Segregation of sanitary waste, and within it the menstrual waste, is very important. After segregating it, the plastic has to be separately disposed off while the blood and body fluids have to be treated as biomedical waste. Incineration is one of the ways to dispose of sanitary napkins but the rules are rarely followed.
The Solid Waste Management Rules got a boost in 2016, where it was clearly specified that sanitary waste was the responsibility of the generator, that is the manufacturers of the products. However, the manufacturers, which include large multinational corporations, rarely take any responsibility for their effective collection and disposal, beyond the cautionary line on the packs that they should not be flushed down toilets.
Eco-friendly Alternatives and Sustainable Menstruation
Women in rural areas use re-usable cloth as sanitary pads and while that is eco-friendly, it is not so hygienic. Cloth napkins have to be properly washed and dried in sunlight, which acts as a natural sterilizer.
Re-usable tampons made out of natural fibres and materials such as wool, cotton, bamboo, hemp are viable and sustainable alternatives to commercial, mass-produced plastic sanitary pads. They work the same way as disposable tampons and are inserted into the vagina. Other alternatives are pads made out of bamboo pulp, wood pulp or bamboo charcoal pads, all of which are highly absorbent and safe, not only for health but also for the environment.
Rural women are now making disposable pads out of banana tree fibre, which decompose in less than a year. A number of entrepreneurs have now taken it upon themselves to venture into this area of making environment-friendly sanitary pads. Carmesi, too, is a brand of sanitary pads that focuses on sustainable menstruation. Carmesi sanitary pads are made out of corn starch and bamboo fiber, which do not harm the environment, are biodegradable, and are safe for the user.
While plastic-based menstrual hygiene products are available in abundance, it is advisable to switch to a natural, safer product that does not have any harmful chemicals or synthetics fibers. Your intimate care is as important as any other personal care. Period.