According to Census 2011 population data, 336 million girls and women in India experience menstruation and it can be safely estimated that about 121 million girls and women are currently using locally or commercially produced disposable sanitary napkins.
With big players like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson pushing sales with glitzy advertising for their sanitary napkins, even government agencies typically procure these products as they are readily manufactured in huge quantities and available easily.
The end result is that a staggering 1 billion non-compostable pads are landing up in urban sewers, landfills, as well as in rural fields and water bodies in India every month. 12.3 billion sanitary pads are disposed of in India annually, creating 113,000 tonnes of menstrual waste. According to a factsheet distributed at a recent event organised by Dasra and MH Alliance, “Not only do these products take hundreds of years to decompose but because of the super absorbent polymers contained in commercial sanitary napkins, they absorb and retain thirty or more times their weight in fluid,” referencing studies by LeBlanc and Gupta conducted in 2017 and 2014, respectively. This means that they stay in the ground, not decomposing, and sucking in water, stopping its natural flow.
Two important concerns have emerged from various studies on menstrual waste management in India. Firstly, many girls and women lack access to appropriate waste management options. This may lead to the unhygienic practices, like girls using a single pad for 12 hours. Secondly the lack of disposal treatment options may lead to unsafe management of a mammoth volume of menstrual waste, which affects the health of those living in the area that the waste is disposed of, as well as negatively affecting the water cycle in the area.
Given the serious nature of the environment impact from commercially produced pads, social enterprises and public health organisations are beginning to introduce environment friendly, bio-degradable sanitary pads. Aakar, a hybrid social enterprise is pushing the boundaries on menstrual health management in the country. “The Anandi pad is our innovation and comes in two categories-non compostable pads for INR 28 (USD 0.44) for a pack of eight and 100% compostable pads for INR 40 (USD 0.63) for a pack of eight,” said Pratik Kumar.
Kumar is the Director of Aakar Social Ventures, which spearheads awareness campaigns on menstrual health and safe livelihood issues in India. “We pioneered the making and selling of fully compostable pads in 2013 and today we have 30 manufacturing units all over the country and are setting up manufacturing plants in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. Our pads are made by women from agricultural waste and other natural fibres and are sell them in rural areas and in urban slums where these products would otherwise not be available,” Kumar added.
The compostable Anandi pads – which can be mixed with other decaying material such as leaves and food waste – take about 90-180 days to fully disintegrate depending on varying environmental factors, ensuring that no toxicity is left in the soil. Such environment friendly sanitary pads could be the answer to tackling serious rural and urban disposal issues and also encourage communities to embrace practices to ensure environmental sustainability.
According to Kumar, government agencies are largely indifferent to the issues of toxicity and serious health risks that commercial pads pose for women. They even promote the use of incinerators particularly for disposing pads in school under the Swachch Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) without considering the release of harmful dioxins and methane gas.
Aakar is also a part of the large pressure group of NGOs which has petitioned the Indian Supreme Court to the Goods & Services Tax (GST) on sanitary pads. “We not only pay 12% tax on the finished product but as manufacturers of Anandi pads, we also pay an additional 18% tax which pushes up the price. As we are small scale entrepreneurs, we cannot sustain ourselves in the face of stiff competition from the big brands. The government has to make informed decisions as not only the health of millions of women is at risk but there are large environment risks as well. Our advocacy shall continue and we plan to upmarket our product to capture a larger consumer base in urban areas and also look at manufacturing compostable diapers soon”, averred Pratik.
The Bollywood film ‘PadMan’, a biopic on the social entrepreneur, Arunachalam Muruganathan, who set up a business to manufacture low-cost sanitary pads for rural women, is all set to hit Indian theatres soon. Activists hope that this will move the discourse on menstrual hygiene – a traditionally taboo topic – to centrestage and there will be renewed attention on biodegradable options for women in India.