Sanitary Napkins and the Environmental impact

Part -1: Disposal of sanitary napkins

How to dispose a sanitary napkin? Have you heard of organic/ biodegradable/ compostable sanitary pads? Can sanitary napkins be 100% compostable? Can disposable products be recycled? What should be government’s policy around disposal of sanitary napkin waste?

This blog is a part of a series of 5 articles with the aim of answering some of the above questions and creating a complete picture of the life cycle of products to drive collective action towards better health and better environment.

sanitary napkin disposal, sanitary pad waste

Sanitary Napkin Waste generation in India

One of the most important debates in the personal hygiene sector is the plastic waste generation due to usage of disposable products like sanitary napkins. On one hand, we are concerned about better menstrual health and hygiene of women and, on other hand, we can not ignore the impact of plastic waste generated due to use of hygiene products.

For a population of 350 million menstruating women in India, assuming 35% women use sanitary napkins regularly at an average of 8 pads a month, about 200 tonnes of sanitary napkin waste would be generated daily!

While the sanitary napkin waste generation in India constitutes less than 1% of total plastic waste generated, which is at atleast 25000 tonnes daily, it is important to look at compostable alternatives or recycling these products. We have to keep in mind that the hygiene industry in India is growing rapidly and the inadequate plastic waste handling by India at 85% of waste generated, means most of our plastic waste generated is not recycled or disposed safely.

Sanitary napkin disposal methods today

So how are sanitary napkins being disposed in India? According to the research by Central pollution control board of India (CPCB), the methods of disposing sanitary napkins vary in urban and rural setting. Most urban women at home dispose sanitary napkin in a dustbin which eventually piles up in landfills. Whereas women in rural areas prefer to wash napkins and bury in a pit. It also varies if the women are using it at home or at school/workplace. When using a public washroom, often due to poor infrastructure, sanitary napkins are being flushed or are left in corners or other open areas. Very few women actually incinerate the soiled sanitary napkins.

Indian government’s guidelines for disposal of sanitary napkins

Indian government’s CPCB has set guidelines for disposal of sanitary waste and has specified role of all stake holders of the product to dispose them. It has recommended the following methods to dispose sanitary napkins:

  1. Low-cost incinerator – Rural setup – Sanitary napkins preferably without SAP.
  2. Electric incinerator – Rural/Urban setup
  3. High temperature incinerator for bio-waste – Urban setup with central collection and disposal with other bio waste.
  4. Deep burial – Rural setup – Compostable materials only
  5. Composting – Compost site – Compostable materials only
  6. Pit burning – Rural area

According to the guidelines, the waste can be disposed by either incinerating (central incinerating units for urban or low-cost incinerating units for rural) or disposing in landfills. Both methods which are practical solutions in the current state, they need to be implemented effectively at a systemic level.

These options have drawbacks too. Broadly speaking, incineration is not an ideal method as the carbon trapped in fossil fuels is released into atmosphere along with other gases, while land filling is a major source of pollution and the plastics do not degrade for several years. Hence, we need to find better ways of handling our sanitary napkin waste by either recycling them or by using environment friendly products.

How can an individual dispose sanitary napkins responsibly?

While there are alternatives like recycling and composting (which are covered in the upcoming articles), disposal of used sanitary napkins remains a challenge across India as these processes are not widely adopted yet. Nevertheless, there are a few steps that an individual can do to help the cause.

  1.  If one is living in an urban society, the ideal way to dispose sanitary napkins would be to incinerate in a central incinerating facility such as the ones used by hospitals to dispose sanitary and bio waste. One has to explore and find the nearest central incineration unit in their area. For this method to be effective, it would require segregation of sanitary waste at individual level, collection at society level and incineration at central incineration units.
  2. If one is disposing in a dustbin with other waste, the least they can do is to wrap the used sanitary napkin in a disposable wrapper which is provided by most pad manufacturers. This is important for the hygiene and safety of waste pickers.
  3. In rural areas where there is a lack of segregation, incineration would be the best option as suggested by CPCB. Low-cost manual incinerators or electric incinerators can be used for this purpose.

As consumers are more aware about the environmental impact and want to make conscious purchase decisions, few brands have taken advantage of the situation by either wrongly claiming that their products are environment friendly or confuse consumers by using terminologies which they do not understand fully.

In the next article on environment friendly terminologies used by brands, we will go through the meaning of some of the terms used and what would happen to these products when they are disposed.

Author: Kartik MehtaCTO - Saral Designs
Kartik is a graduate of Engineering Design department of IIT-Madras and is the co-founder of Saral Design Solutions pvt ltd. He has designed and commercialized world’s first decentralized sanitary napkin manufacturing unit. He is a winner of the National Entrepreneurship Award 2016 by Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Winner of ASME ISHOW Global 2017 for hardware led social innovations, Winner of Outlook India Innovation 2019 award by BCH & EDANA for best innovation in personal hygiene industry in India.
Prior to co-founding Saral Designs, he had designed special purpose packaging machines, filed patents for two devices and has showcased his products in Brunel Design show, London. He has also been selected as one of the delegates approved by Dr. Shashi Tharoor to represent Indian contingent at Kairos Global Society, New York.