Sustainable Menstruation: The Road to a Greener Planet

The term “sustainable menstruation” refers to menstrual management practices that don’t harm the environment. It involves the use of easily accessible, alternative products beneficial to menstruators as well as the planet, thereby helping to reduce the plastic waste ending up in landfills and oceans. With the world moving towards a greener Earth, sustainable menstruation is the need of the hour.

According to a 2018 WaterAid India and Menstrual Hygiene Alliance India (MHAI) report, there are over 336 million menstruators in India but only 121 million of these use sanitary pads, and the rest adopt other, generally unhygienic, ways. Assuming that each menstruator uses an average of 20 sanitary pads per cycle, menstruators use and dispose of more than a billion sanitary pads annually. Conventional sanitary pads are made of 90% plastic, each one equivalent to around 4 plastic bags! Imagine the staggering amount of waste generated; it can cover landfills spread over 60 hectares. Picture 85 football fields put together! Switching to eco-friendly menstrual products is a progression needed to save our planet.

Disposable sanitary napkins (DSNs) are marketed as hygienic and safe. However, being non-biodegradable, each napkin takes approximately 500-800 years to disintegrate fully after disposal. These pads have also been found to contain toxic and volatile compounds, negatively impacting the user’s health and the environment. Prolonged use of DSNs may result in rashes, itching, urinary infection, skin allergies and adverse effects on endocrine and reproductive systems due to the chemicals they contain. Sustainable products are free of harmful chemicals and are relatively safer.

Our growing market offers various sustainable menstruation products to pick from.They are also typically less expensive for consumers over the long term. A menstrual cup costs Rs 400 and can last up to 10 years, whereas the cost of using sanitary pads for that duration would be around Rs 24000! Given that the menstrual cup is reusable, it doesn’t contribute much to the waste generated by disposable sanitary products. Additionally, menstrual cups collect blood instead of absorbing them, reducing the risks associated with disposable products. Medical-grade silicon is utilised to make menstrual cups, reducing the chances of vaginal infections, diseases or allergies. It’s also leak-proof, doesn’t need to be changed often, and can be worn with an intrauterine device. However, the insertion technique needs to be learnt. Otherwise, its usage may be messy. Finding the right fit might also be difficult as the size varies from person to person. 

Another environmentally friendly product is the cloth pad.Women with sensitive skin might benefit from their cotton material which, unlike regular pads, doesn’t irritate the skin and helps avoid unnecessary exposure to synthetic ingredients.These are thin and flexible and can absorb more than a regular disposable pad. While they have a high one-time cost, they are inexpensive in the long run since they can be washed and reused. They can last up to three to five years and are thus budget-friendly. However, keeping them clean and hygienic after blood stains can be unnecessarily difficult, disincentivising menstruators to purchase them

Lesser-known, yet extremely sustainable, products are period panties. They’re made up of triple layers of fabric, absorbent as well as water-proof, ensuring that there’s no leakage. These panties feel lighter as compared to sanitary pads and can be worn for a longer duration. They’re budget-friendly as they must be purchased only once but can be used many times. However, the high initial cost, even for a few pairs per cycle, can be disincentivizing at first glance and make them unfeasible for some people. Additionally, the hassle of maintenance (washing and drying) can have the same effect.

So the question remains: How can our government inculcate the practice of sustainable menstruation in the youth? The way ahead is to support small-scale manufacturers and non-profit organisations engaged in promoting sustainable products.

The Central Government started providing tax exemptions on all feminine hygiene products in July 2018. This was a welcome move, making all menstrual products more disposable, affordable and accessible to the lower-income population. 

Soch Green was the first label to introduce reusable menstrual cups in India and has been joined now by other home-grown brands such as Avni, Plush and Sirona. Before the advent of menstrual cups, some brands initiated the green period revolution by creating eco-friendly sanitary pads made of plant-based materials like banana fibre and bamboo.  

Recently a company named Padcare came up on Shark Tank India, presenting a futuristic and eco-friendly menstrual hygiene disposal solution by providing special dustbins that convert sanitary waste into reusable cellulose and plastic through a multi-step mechanical process. 

Under the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, there is no clarity on whether sanitary napkins should be classified under bio-medical waste or plastic waste. They’re instead disposed of along with general household waste when they should be segregated, autoclaved and then incinerated to destroy pathogens. This discrepancy in classification leads to unsafe disposal practices. Many menstruators flush down disposable sanitary napkins after use, clogging underground drains and exposing manual scavengers to toxic chemicals. 

The government must enforce clear rules for waste disposal to institute a sustainable system for sanitary waste management. Schools, colleges and workplaces should organise menstrual awareness sessions so that menstruators are educated about the right way to dispose of menstrual waste and how to use menstrual cups and reusable cloth pads correctly.

The fate of planet Earth lies in our hands, dependent on our intent and actions. As members of an aware society, we must ensure that, along with making menstruation a comfortable and safe period for menstruators, we also need to encourage the adoption of “green” products.  Every menstruator can contribute to a cleaner, greener planet by making an eco-friendly transition from disposable to sustainable menstrual products.

Good talk, peeps.

Article by Aadi from the REDefine Team

Featured artwork by Sanvee Jatia


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Author: The REDefine Campaign

A group of students trying to spread the message and bring out of the shell the taboo topics of Menstrual and Sexual Health. The REDefine Campaign is a campaign devoted to helping the population of India understand the key parts of female's life that is known as puberty. This blog is designed to show our progress, reports as well as learnings and new experiences along our journey. We hope that one day this world that we live in will willingly and openly not only talk, but give advice and spread awareness of the bodily cycle that is puberty. We do hope that you learn something along with us, and please spread the word. For any questions please do not be afraid to comment and/or email us. Come along with us on our journey!

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