The Basics of Sustainable Menstrual Products in India
Arshia Bathla writes, I’ve been blind to the reality of menstrual waste and the alternatives available to me. As Rega Jha points out in this enlightening Buzzfeed video, typically, pads are what are introduced to most of us after our first period and we carry on with the same inherited knowledge.
How bad is the problem?
The short answer? Very.
Let’s have a look at some scary but eye-opening statistics — nearly 121 million women and adolescent girls in India use at least eight sanitary pads per cycle, which translates to 1 million non-biodegradable pads generated monthly, which ultimately results in 12 billion pads produced and disposed of annually.
Tampons and pads, with their packaging and wrapping, generate more than 20,00,00,000 (that’s twenty crores) kilograms of waste per year, and they all contain plastic – in fact, pads are around 90% plastic.
Data by the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI) reveals that inadequate disposal and treatment systems often lead to unsafe and risky management of waste. The bacteria that workers are exposed to range from E.Coli to salmonella along with other pathogens that cause life-threatening diseases like hepatitis and tetanus.
If disposable pads are this harmful to the environment, how harmful do you think they are for you?
Dioxin, a chemical used to bleach pads, when accumulated had the potential to cause ovarian and cervical cancer. Vaginal rashes and allergies are another set of problems caused by disposable pads. Have you ever thought of how the “fresh” sanitary napkins have helped us remain “fragrant” throughout a cycle? This is caused by artificial perfumes which like most chemicals are damaging to our body. Dr. Yost in an article by the Cleveland Clinic says, “It’s a delicate environment down there and using scented feminine products can upset the balance between good and bad bacteria. Additionally, the chemicals can also throw your pH balance out of whack.” So much for the ‘hygiene’ illusion.
What are some alternatives?
Menstrual cups, inter labia pads, biodegradable pads, and period panties are some options for sustainable period products in India.
Unfortunately, access and awareness about the same are tied greatly to various socio-economic factors. In 2016 a study found that within the 100,000 girls included as participants, almost 50,000 did not know about menstruation in India until they got their period, and the conversations that did follow treated the biological activity like nothing less than a taboo.
PeeSafe, Boondh, and Sirona are some brands which sell menstrual cups online, Simran Atri says, “The lack of offline availability of menstrual products is often discouraging, especially since women in rural India who would benefit most from this cheaper alternative are the ones least aware.”
In the various interviews, here are some reasons menstrual cups appear to be an excellent choice compared to disposable pads :
- One-time investment, menstrual cups can last up to 10 years!
- Menstrual fluid develops an odour when exposed to air, cups eliminate this issue.
- Vaginal pH and beneficial bacteria stay in place, if they didn’t it could cause irritation, itching, infection, or an allergic reaction. Good Riddance.
- Easy to use! Apart from minor discomfort faced in the first two cycles, menstrual cups are easy to use, given you use the correct size and type!
- Menstrual cups aren’t associated with toxic shock syndrome. (TSS)
- Most people report that they don’t even feel the cup when it’s in place!
But, menstrual cups can be daunting to use at first, Simran says “At first the cup just lay in my cupboard for a while because I couldn’t quite figure out how to use it and quite frankly it was a little scary, but, once I overcame the initial discomfort there was no going back.”
As pointed out by Simran the issue lies in the awareness amongst women in rural India, those who could benefit most from this option. Menstrual cups require access to clean bathrooms, proper hygiene and these conditions are accessible only to the privileged.
Additionally, the stigma surrounding menstrual cups lie within the fabric of our patriarchal society, the insertion of something inside a vagina before marriage is perceived as extremely inappropriate. A woman becoming “impure” before marriage is an idea that shakes the regressive mindsets of most who live in India, to the very core. Although this shouldn’t be the case, the use of menstrual cups is tied to the delicate thread binding femininity and purity in India and healthy conversations surrounding menstruation seem impossible.
Talking about how she switched to menstrual cups to help do her part for the environment Leela Moza says, “I started using them about 1.5 years ago, it was strange at first. All the conditioning about how this wasn’t good for me somehow took a toll, and it wasn’t easy to make my mom understand why I was suddenly using menstrual cups. She never said it out loud but I know she was afraid of the whole ‘hymen breaking’ myth.”
Source: wordsovervoices, Instagram
Biodegradable pads and period panties
These eco-friendly pads are one step closer to combatting the dual problems of environmental deterioration and menstrual hygiene.
“Biodegradable pads are of two types – one made of cloth and the other made of biodegradable materials such as bioplastic or alternatives such as banana,” says menstrual health activist Komal Ramdey. While cloth pads could be produced cheaply, the second type could be more costly.
Not only do biodegradable pads help in reducing the chances of infections and rashes, but, they are also chemical and plastic-free alternatives, they decompose within two years of disposal.
This Times Of India will give you links to some of the best eco-friendly menstrual pads available in our country!
Period panties have an absorbent crutch that promises to hold up to three teaspoons of menstrual blood and dry faster. A regular pad or tampon holds about two teaspoons of menstrual blood. The design also has a protective layer up the backside, thus resulting in no leaks. Although not widely available, period panties are available on various websites online.
The shortcomings for these options would be the slightly higher cost and again, lack of availability and awareness regarding the same for women in rural India. Cloth pads and period panties would need to be washed regularly, spaces for the same would rarely be made available to most women, given that they could afford to buy the same.
Movements in India
Feminism in India began #ThePadEffect in 2017, to examine the harmful consequences of using disposable pads in India. They highlighted not only the ecological outcomes but examined the cultural and social aspects too, you can check out their campaign video here!
Green the Red, launched in 2017, promotes awareness about the reusable options for menstrual hygiene management. They hold various sessions at corporate offices, schools, communities, and, anganwadis. The ‘Cup and Cloth campaign’ launched by Green the Red, a group of healthcare professionals and eco-activists, encourages women to choose eco-friendly menstrual products. The campaign draws our attention to some disturbing facts. “Bengaluru alone generates around 90 tonnes of menstrual waste per day. Most of the disposable pads contain plastic, which poses a big threat to the environment,” says Dr. Meenakshi Bharath, a gynecologist, and eco-warrior.
Another is Kamakhya, an initiative in Udaipur started by Laad Lohar, an Adivasi woman nine years ago. She fashions cloth pads during her free time and goes from village to village to teach other Adivasi or disadvantaged women on how to make these pads. Laad explains that this napkin is environmentally sustainable as it is made of cloth and can be washed and used multiple times.
Currently, switching to sustainable menstrual products in India seems to be a utopian vision, accessible only to upper-class society with resources for the same, factoring in the lack of government policies, and the numerous myths and misinformation spread due to the lack of comprehensive sex education in India. To conclude,
Featured Image Credits: PriystnCups