Sanitary Napkins and the Environmental impact

Part -3: Compostable Materials and its challenges

How to dispose a sanitary napkin? Have you heard of organic/ biodegradable/ compostable sanitary pads? Are all the same or is there a difference? What should you buy? 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.

Compostable Materials

Compostable Materials

Materials which biodegrade in a composting process through the action of naturally occurring microorganisms and do so to a high extent within a specified timeframe. The associated biological processes during composting will yield C02, water, inorganic compounds and biomass. They do not leave any visible contaminants or toxic residue/substances

It is important to understand the various classification of compostable materials, which are:

  • Industrial Compostable: Products which degrade in an industrial composting plant within a period of 90 days. The industrial composting plant ensures that the compost material is maintained at a temperature of around 60C and presence of certain micro-organisms for the entire duration of 90 days.
  • Home Compostable: When referring to “home” or “backyard” composting, a cooler aerobic breakdown of organic material or waste is meant, usually in small-scale composters and by ‘slow-stack’ treatment methods at atmospheric temperatures and requires 90% degradation in 1 year.
  • Marine Compostable: A material which has the ability to completely biodegrade under marine environmental conditions including aerobic marine waters or anaerobic marine sediments within a specified timeframe, leaving no toxic substances or residue.

One of the most devastating effects of plastic pollution is the leakage of plastics into our water bodies. It is important to differentiate between industrial, home and marine compost for the same reason. Most of the commercial compostable materials are certified as only industrial compostable, and hence they need to be composed in a central industrial composting plant. Landfilling or disposal in water bodies is harmful for environment.

The following table shows some of the reputed global agencies, standards followed by them and logo provided by them for an approved industrial compostable product, which one should look for on the packaging of a product which is claimed to be compostable.

Compostable certification agencies

Challenges with use of Industrial compostable products:

  1. An industrial compostable material will not degrade when it is simply dumped in landfills. The process of composting requires an industrial composting facility, which includes the compost material to be maintained at a temperature of around 60C and presence of certain micro-organisms for a duration of 90 days. Only then will the compost be created and can be used for agriculture.
  2. Lack of awareness of end-users on segregation and disposal methods while using compostable products makes this a mammoth segregation and infrastructure challenge.
  3. Compost material under anaerobic conditions (in landfills) is known to produce methane gas which is a greenhouse gas. Unless methane is captured and put to use this is not an environment friendly process.
  4. Compostable material and recyclable material cannot be mixed up. This is a challenge for both the processes. Recyclable material when mixed with compostable material can render the entire batch of compost useless and it would have to be dumped in landfill. Similarly presence of compostable materials in recyclable lot will make the entire batch non-recyclable or produce poor quality yield. Hence both materials need to be segregated exclusively.
  5. Compostable material cannot be disposed into oceans as they could be harmful for marine life. One of the biggest challenges with plastic waste is the plastic that is leaked into ocean (Pacific plastic island) and compostable material is no different from some of the plastics as a threat to marine life.

Hence, while compostable materials have very clear merits, these raw materials have to be handled very responsibly by all stake holders for us to see the positive effects on environment. In the next article we will go through the compostable material alternatives that can be used for making a sanitary napkin.

Author: Kartik MehtaCTO - Saral Designs
He is a graduate from Department of Engineering Design, IIT Madras. He has worked at General Motors India for a year and then started working as a machine designer. He has designed and sold several Special Purpose Machines in packaging industry. Prior to co-founding Saral Designs, he has 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. He has also been selected to be a part of IDDS (International Development and Design Summit), 2015-16.