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Switching to Sustainable Menstrual Products


The impact of dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins on human health and the envi­ron­ment is not often dis­cussed pub­licly, because of the social taboo asso­ci­at­ed with men­stru­a­tion (despite the fact that near­ly 50% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion are women). How­ev­er, the fact remains that it is a major prob­lem and the prac­tice of using such non-biodegrad­able nap­kins is unsus­tain­able, in the long run. We can­not pre­tend like it isn’t a seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal issue, just because of the taboo sur­round­ing it.

We have got­ten accus­tomed to using these nap­kins because of their con­ve­nience: we sim­ply need to use them, wrap them up in a news­pa­per and then throw them into the garbage bin. But there is no aware­ness of the impact of dis­pos­able nap­kins on the plan­et and human beings, through the entire prod­uct life cycle — from man­u­fac­tur­ing and use to final dis­pos­al. Let us look at the adverse effects of these nap­kins from two main per­spec­tives: health and envi­ron­ment.


Dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins have been linked to var­i­ous health prob­lems, rang­ing from mild to seri­ous, due to the tox­ic ingre­di­ents con­tained in the prod­uct. Inde­pen­dent stud­ies by women’s health orga­ni­za­tions have found chem­i­cals of con­cern like diox­in, car­cino­gens and repro­duc­tive tox­ins in tam­pons and pads. [1]

The skin in the vagi­nal and labi­al walls is high­ly vas­cu­lar with a ten­den­cy for greater absorben­cy. Hence, on pro­longed usage of dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins, these tox­ic chem­i­cals can be absorbed by the body.

Chem­i­cals like diox­ins are high­ly tox­ic, even in trace quan­ti­ties. Such chem­i­cals can­not be metab­o­lized by the body. They accu­mu­late in the body with a poten­tial cumu­la­tive effect. Diox­ins can cause repro­duc­tive and devel­op­men­tal prob­lems, dam­age the immune sys­tem, inter­fere with hor­mones and also cause can­cer.[2]

Doc­tors and med­ical insti­tu­tions approve of the use of these dis­pos­able nap­kins and hence women assume that the safe­ty of such prod­ucts have been looked into. This is incor­rect. Fem­i­nine hygiene prod­ucts need to be thor­ough­ly researched by experts. There needs to be inves­ti­ga­tion into their long term effects on health. Com­plete and accu­rate infor­ma­tion must be made read­i­ly avail­able.


Soil pol­lu­tion

A sin­gle san­i­tary nap­kin is equiv­a­lent to 4 plas­tic bags. [4] Since they are non-biodegrad­able, the soiled nap­kins would stay in the land­fills for about 800 years! A woman’s impact on the plan­et by her choice of prod­ucts extends well beyond her life­time!

Only 12 per cent of the 355 mil­lion women of men­stru­at­ing age in India can afford dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins. But, con­ser­v­a­tive­ly, these 42.6 mil­lion women will throw 21.3 bil­lion san­i­tary nap­kins into a land­fill in their lives. [6]

Air pol­lu­tion

The Indi­an Government’s inter­im solu­tion to the prob­lem of dis­pos­al of the san­i­tary waste is to burn them in incin­er­a­tors. [3] Incin­er­a­tion in sim­ple, low-tem­per­a­ture incin­er­a­tors are now being pro­mot­ed in India as a method of dis­pos­al. But the tox­ic diox­ins present in san­i­tary nap­kins are released into the air and soil when used nap­kins are burnt under tem­per­a­tures low­er than 800 degrees Cel­sius.

Hence, we see that these dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins are not real­ly ‘dis­pos­able’ in the true sense of the word!

Sol­id waste man­age­ment

An aver­age woman throws away about 150 kg of most­ly non-biodegrad­able absorbents every year,” accord­ing to peri­od of change, a cam­paign start­ed under The Kachra project. Dis­pos­al soiled san­i­tary nap­kins is a major chal­lenge in our coun­try. Women, both rur­al and urban, face this ques­tion every month while gov­ern­ment author­i­ties strug­gle to find a way to han­dle the stag­ger­ing amount of san­i­tary waste gen­er­at­ed every month.

Some women wrap it in plas­tic or paper and throw it along with domes­tic garbage, while some flush them down toi­lets or throw them into water bod­ies. [3]

Human dig­ni­ty

When we throw out our waste, it may have van­ished from our house, but it does not mean that it has van­ished from the face of the earth. There are human beings involved, whose liveli­hood is seg­re­gat­ing the wastes that we throw away.

So what hap­pens to the san­i­tary nap­kin after we wrap and throw them into the dust­bin? The nap­kins are col­lect­ed as house­hold waste by garbage col­lec­tors and lat­er seg­re­gat­ed, often man­u­al­ly.

Waste pick­ers sep­a­rate out soiled nap­kins from recy­clable items by hand, expos­ing them­selves to dan­ger­ous pathogens that cause dis­eases like hepati­tis and tetanus. [3] After this, the san­i­tary waste is dri­ven out of the city and buried in a land­fill on the out­skirts of a city. At times they are shred­ded before being buried.

Most com­mer­cial­ly pro­duced nap­kins con­tain a chem­i­cal com­po­nent called super-absorbent-gel that is designed to absorb flu­ids. When flushed down the toi­let, the nap­kin con­tin­ues to bloat as it makes its way through the under­ground drains, open chan­nels and clogs up the sew­ers.[2]

Con­ser­van­cy work­ers then have to risk their health and even their lives to dive into man­holes to remove the nap­kin by hand.

Embod­ied ener­gy

Each of these pads has an envi­ron­men­tal impact of the waste of not only the prod­uct itself, but the pack­ag­ing, plas­tic or card­board appli­ca­tors, as well as the less vis­i­ble costs of trans­porta­tion and pro­duc­tion.

The Roy­al Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy in Stock­holm car­ried out a life cycle assess­ment (LCA) com­par­i­son of the envi­ron­men­tal impact of tam­pons and san­i­tary pads. Their “cra­dle to grave” assess­ment of the raw mate­r­i­al extrac­tion, trans­porta­tion, pro­duc­tion, use and waste man­age­ment stages took three main impact cat­e­gories into con­sid­er­a­tion: human health, ecosys­tem qual­i­ty and resource use.

They found that the main envi­ron­men­tal impact of the prod­ucts was in fact caused by the pro­cess­ing of raw mate­ri­als, par­tic­u­lar­ly LDPE (low den­si­ty poly­ethe­lene) – or the plas­tics used in the back­ing of pads and tam­pon appli­ca­tors, and cel­lu­lose pro­duc­tion. As pro­duc­tion of these plas­tics requires a lot of ener­gy and cre­ates long last­ing waste, the main impact from the life cycle of these prod­ucts is fos­sil fuel use, though the waste pro­duced is sig­nif­i­cant in its own right. Between pads and tam­pons, pads have more of an envi­ron­men­tal impact due to their plas­tic com­po­nents since almost 90% of a san­i­tary nap­kin is plas­tic. [3]

At Anaa­di

At every stage of man­u­fac­tur­ing and use, dis­pos­able san­i­tary nap­kins use up pre­cious resources like crude oil and trees (for cel­lu­lose in the nap­kins), con­t­a­m­i­nate water and the atmos­phere, and final­ly end up in a land­fill since there is no option to dis­pose of them safe­ly. Hence, the use of such a prod­uct by a large pop­u­la­tion in the long run is unsus­tain­able.

At Anaa­di, we are con­stant­ly explor­ing and exper­i­ment­ing with cre­ative ideas for a sus­tain­able future. We try to bring in sus­tain­abil­i­ty in all spheres of activ­i­ty. Since sus­tain­abil­i­ty has always been the core of the Indi­an tra­di­tion, we look for ideas from the rich ancient cul­ture of India and see how we can re-apply them in the mod­ern con­text.

Hence, giv­en this prob­lem of wide usage of an unsus­tain­able men­stru­al prod­uct, we explored sev­er­al alter­na­tives that reduced the eco­log­i­cal foot­print and arrived at the best one: Reusable cloth nap­kins. All the prob­lems described above, such as health prob­lems, air and soil pol­lu­tion, high ener­gy con­sump­tion and waste man­age­ment would van­ish, if women made the switch to using reusable cloth nap­kins.

There is noth­ing new in this. Women have been doing it for thou­sands of years. How­ev­er this does not mean that it is old-fash­ioned or out­dat­ed. It is a time-test­ed prac­tice that has sev­er­al ben­e­fits:

  1. It is com­plete­ly envi­ron­ment-friend­ly.

  2. There are no sol­id wastes.

  3. Cost is reduced, as cloth nap­kins last much longer if main­tained well.

  4. There are no adverse health effects.

The inter­net has sev­er­al sto­ries of women who are very hap­py about mak­ing the switch to reusable cloth nap­kins. They report feel­ing more con­nect­ed to the earth, to them­selves and to their cycle. [8]

Through per­son­al exper­i­men­ta­tion, we devel­oped a mod­ern, up-to-date tech­nique of imple­ment­ing this age-old prac­tice. The steps are giv­en as fol­lows:

  1. We have mod­eled the nap­kins after the Care­free brand of pads. The Care­free pack comes with the waist band, which is used to hold up the nap­kin.

  2. Take two pieces of cloth – one for the cov­er­ing (the red cloth in the fig­ure) and one for the absorbent (the grey cloth in the fig­ure).

  3. The absorbent cloth can be of cot­ton or ban­ian mate­r­i­al. T shirts (dark col­ored) made of ban­ian mate­r­i­al were found to be good at absorb­ing the flow. Old cot­ton sari can also be used.

  4. Fold the absorbent cloth to the thick­ness that is com­fort­able for you and cov­er it with the cov­er­ing cloth as shown.

  5. Fix this to the waist­band.

  6. The reusable cloth nap­kin is ready.

Make about 12–15 such nap­kins for your cycle. (You need to have suf­fi­cient dry nap­kins ready for use.) This num­ber may vary from per­son to per­son of course. It also depends on the cli­mat­ic con­di­tions. If your nap­kins dry quick­ly, you can keep wash­ing and reusing them. If your nap­kins take a long time to dry (say, in rainy sea­son), you will need to have more nap­kins ready for use.

The num­ber of nap­kins you use per day depends on the inten­si­ty of your flow. In case of heavy flow, you will need to change your nap­kins more fre­quent­ly.

  1. Get a medi­um sized tub with a lid. This will be used for soak­ing and wash­ing.

  2. Soak­ing the nap­kins soon after use is nec­es­sary to pre­vent stains from blood set­ting in.

  3. Soak the nap­kins in cold water for 30 min­utes. Add a dash of vine­gar to the water. Vine­gar pre­vents musty bad smells and is a gen­tle but effec­tive antibac­te­r­i­al. It is not harm­ful to the envi­ron­ment.

  4. Good qual­i­ty essen­tial oils such as tea-tree oil and laven­der oil also have good dis­in­fec­tant prop­er­ties and they have good fra­grance.

  5. After 30 min­utes, pour the soak­ing water down the drain and wash the nap­kin using nat­ur­al soap. Do not use deter­gents or soaps which con­tain chem­i­cals as they are not envi­ron­ment friend­ly.

  6. Wash­ing can be done in 2 ways:

o Tub wash­ing : Fill the tub with water and immerse the nap­kins into it. Squeeze and wring the nap­kin to remove all the blood. Wash the nap­kin with nat­ur­al soap and rinse it. This method can be fol­lowed when you are away from home, or when you have to use com­mon bath­rooms.

o Stomp­ing: If you are at home, you can fol­low this method while bathing. Put the nap­kin on the floor and as you pour water, stomp it with your feet to remove the blood. Then wash the nap­kin with nat­ur­al soap and rinse it.

While wash­ing, if you need to scrub, you can use a brush or a rough stone. To remove tough stains, a paste of bak­ing soda (Bak­ing soda + water) can be used.

Wash­ing takes just 10 min­utes. You will need to wash twice a day, in the morn­ing and evening. So 20 min­utes per day is all that it takes to wash and main­tain your nap­kins!

While on the go

  1. When you are trav­el­ling and will be back home at the end of the day, car­ry a plas­tic Ziploc bag (shown in the fig­ure above) or a wet bag to put the soiled nap­kins. You can wash them after com­ing back home. The Ziploc bag can be turned inside out, washed and reused.

  2. If you are trav­el­ling and are stay­ing out­side your house, car­ry a small jar or plas­tic con­tain­er with an air tight lid for soak­ing and wash­ing the soiled nap­kins.

Dry­ing the nap­kins

  1. Dry your nap­kins on your ter­race or wher­ev­er it is con­ve­nient, in direct sun­light. Sun­light is best for dry­ing as the UV rays kill germs. Also, sun­light helps to fade stains.

  2. Dur­ing the rainy sea­son, dry your nap­kins on a clothes horse kept indoors.

Mak­ing the switch!

The prob­lem with this taboo around men­stru­a­tion is that it pre­vents women from pub­licly dis­cussing issues relat­ed to men­stru­al health and hygiene and shar­ing cre­ative and inno­v­a­tive ideas on this top­ic. Open dia­logue is the first step in chang­ing the way women deal with men­stru­a­tion and only this can cre­ate aware­ness around the need to make a switch to reusable cloth nap­kins.

The thought of switch­ing com­plete­ly to reusable san­i­tary nap­kins may seem daunt­ing at first. Why should go through such incon­ve­nience when we have an easy “use and throw” method? It might seem repul­sive to wash blood­ied nap­kins with our own hands. In fact, this could be a major rea­son why young peo­ple espe­cial­ly, might feel reluc­tant to go for reusable nap­kins, hav­ing grown up with the com­fort and con­ve­nience offered by the dis­pos­able nap­kins. We need to remem­ber that women have been doing this for thou­sands of years before us. It is just that, hav­ing got­ten used to dis­pos­able nap­kins right from the onset of men­stru­a­tion and not hav­ing fol­lowed any oth­er method, our mind has been con­di­tioned to think of wash­ing and reusing a nap­kin as “repul­sive”. But this is not so. Many women who were ini­tial­ly averse to this idea found that they could get accus­tomed to it very eas­i­ly. They One woman even men­tioned that the process of wash­ing her cloth nap­kins became like a morn­ing rit­u­al for her!

We just need to inte­grate this rou­tine of using, wash­ing, dry­ing and reusing nap­kins into our lifestyle and we will be sur­prised to see that it is no big deal at all! Soon, this rou­tine will become the new “con­ve­nient”!

Also, when we look at it as our very own per­son­al step towards liv­ing in har­mo­ny with Moth­er Nature, who is the one who nour­ish­es us and pro­vides every­thing for our sus­te­nance, we would not mind sac­ri­fic­ing a bit of our com­fort, would we? (Just 20 min­utes a day after all 🙂 )


[7] Shreya — The Eco­log­i­cal Impact of Fem­i­nine Hygiene Prod­ucts (2016)


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