Menstrual waste, which largely comprises non-recyclable plastic waste, is a burgeoning crisis today. Where does a disposed menstrual pad end up? What are the environmental and health implications of menstrual waste? These are questions which need to be taken more seriously and discussed openly. It is an undeniable fact that the stigma or shame surrounding menstruation influences menstrual waste disposal methods on an individual and community level.

Where does a disposed menstrual pad end up?

If you are one of the 121 million out of 336 million menstruating women in India who uses menstrual pads, you help to generate 12 billion discarded pads annually.

The majority of menstrual waste is buried in landfills and burnt in the open. The rest of it is either disposed of in open areas (lakes, rivers, drains, or roadside) or flushed down toilets which leads to clogged drains. It is a privilege for girls and women to have access to menstrual products. It is also a privilege to have access to safe and appropriate disposal mechanisms such as newspapers, dustbins (with lid) and incinerators.

What does the law say?

Due to the wide variety of menstrual products available in the market, there is no single agreed upon method to tackle menstrual waste in India. The Solid Waste Management Rules (2016) classify the menstrual waste as ‘domestic hazardous waste’ along with diapers, napkins, etc.

Menstrual waste is situated in a grey area since it can also be categorised as biomedical waste and plastic waste. The Biomedical Waste Management Rules (2016) provide guidelines for deep burial of biomedical waste which can be adapted for menstrual waste.

Conventional menstrual pads are made up of 90% plastic, including the individual covers, outside packaging, and adhesive/glue. The used menstrual pads cannot be recycled and have to be incinerated/destroyed by burning.

Another point of concern is the presence of Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) in these pads which can retain 30 times or more their weight in fluid. SAPs can have a detrimental effect on the lakes or ponds where pads are carelessly disposed of and can become a breeding ground for diseases.

The garbage collector, ragpicker and toilet cleaner

While discussing menstrual waste, it is easy to ignore or forget the people who pick up the garbage we create. It is not uncommon to spot carelessly discarded pads in women’s public toilets or a street dog dragging a used menstrual pad and leaving it in the middle of the road. The garbage collector, ragpicker and toilet cleaner who picks up our trash deserves to live a life of dignity just like anybody else.

According to Menstrual Health Alliance India, only 45% of menstrual waste is collected routinely and segregated by ragpickers. It should also be highlighted that in most rural areas, there is no organised garbage collection. As there is no segregation at source (household level), the mammoth task of organising waste is undertaken by the ragpickers who expose themselves to dangerous pathogens every day such as HIV, staphylococcus, hepatitis, e coli, salmonella and typhoid.

The ‘Red Dot campaign’ in Pune was set up to encourage and raise awareness about menstrual waste segregation. The menstrual waste is wrapped in newspaper and marked with a red dot to distinguish it from other waste for easy segregation by ragpickers. Similarly, in Bengaluru, segregation of menstrual waste during routine garbage collection is followed.

Burn and Bury!

Incineration technique: The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends incineration of menstrual waste at 800 degrees Celsius to convert it into ash and other harmless gases. If burnt in careless or unsafe conditions, it produces carcinogenic pollutants like dioxins and furans.

While it is the most effective method to destroy menstrual waste, it is also the most difficult. There are few proper incineration facilities and in general, a lack of infrastructure is the main limiting factor. Moreover, they need to adhere to standards and have regular maintenance and monitoring.

On an individual and community-level, small-scale incinerators (technological or rudimentary earthen urns)  have not taken off yet. There needs to be more capacity-building and education to make small-scale incinerators safe to use and popular.

Composting technique: This method is used for biodegradable/organic menstrual products at the household or community level. The process of composting can be quickened by adding other organic waste to the mix such as kitchen waste. Composting is a useful and sustainable method as it produces fertiliser to further enrich the soil.

Who’s responsible for menstrual waste?

On an individual level, following the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ is a good start. Every individual is responsible for the amount of waste they generate and should be mindful about segregating menstrual waste at home and carefully disposing menstrual waste in public places as well.

The choice of menstrual products is closely connected with waste management solutions. Keeping in mind the environment friendly component, every girl or woman should have the means to choose the product which suits her body and needs. The switch to reusable menstrual products like the menstrual cup or cloth pad is steadily rising in popularity nowadays.

What about the manufacturers and producers of conventional menstrual products? Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules dictate that producers should recycle post-consumer waste, but these are rarely adhered to. Another way to ensure responsibility is increasing the thickness of plastic packaging to 50 microns for better segregation of waste and ensuring recyclability of the plastic.

Everyone is a stakeholder at some level, and all stakeholders are important. We should consider all stakeholders… — those we serve, those we lead, the powerless, the silenced, the planet, and all of humanity.” – Linda Fisher Thornton

It is crucial to specify the responsibilities of the waste generator, local government and producers of menstrual products to ensure proper menstrual waste management.

Coming clean…

Given the extremity of the menstrual waste issue, it requires a multi-sectoral and inter-ministerial approach to achieve the outcome. There needs to be a call to action beginning with separate rules for menstrual waste, waste segregation and disposal facilities. Other than this, the manufacture and usage of biodegradable and reusable menstrual products should be encouraged.

Everyone is a stakeholder.