Sanitary Napkins and the Environmental impact

Part -2: Terminologies for Environmentally friendly products

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.

Biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable, organic, natural sanitary pads

Biodegradable, Oxo-biodegradable, Bioplastics, Bio- based plastic, Biopolymer, Natural, Organic, Compostable

These are a few terminologies which are often used by brands to market their products. It affects the purchasing decisions of the consumers who are basically looking for products which will be good for the environment and affects their purchase decision. We will go through the definition of each of these terms and try to make sense of their environmental impact.

Degradable, Bio-degradable and Oxo-biodegradable

Any material that will undergo a process of deterioration or will break- up into natural elements by the action of natural forces (air, light, water, micro organisms) or by the addition of certain chemicals is called degradable material. While, a material capable of being broken down into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms) are called bio-degradable materials.

It is very important to note that there is no restriction on time taken, level of breakdown or avoidance of toxic residues by the material which degrades. It is known that plastics (not environment friendly) also degrade eventually in few 100s to 1000s of years. To add to the confusion, materials which take a long time (several years) to biodegrade or have a very poor rate of degradation are often referred to as non-biodegradable. Hence, a biodegradable material does not necessarily mean that they will be good for our environment.

Another variant called as Oxo-biodegradable have additives added to accelerate the process of disintegration of plastics into small pieces and reduce the visual impact of plastics, however these small pieces take time to break down into innocuous products, and perform similar to other biodegradable products .

Compostable

Materials which biodegrade 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 CO2, water, inorganic compounds and biomass. They do not leave any visible contaminants or toxic residue/substances.

Compostable materials are a subset of biodegradable materials which follow specific degradation criteria. Among all other terminologies, compostable is the most specific and there are agencies which certify a product to be compostable.

Bioplastics, Bio-based plastic, Biopolymer

These terms refer to the origin of the product rather than what is going to happen when the product is disposed.

  • The term bioplastics is used to describe biomass or renewable resource-derived  and also fossil fuel-derived plastics, which are biodegradable.
  • Bio-based plastic (also called as bio-derived or natural product) are plastics derived from biomass or renewable sources, instead of fossil fuels. It is a subset of bio-plastic material and it’s preferred that bio-based products be made from waste materials, as opposed to raw materials, to prevent additional environmental stressors and land use change.

Not all bio-based plastics are compostable, including bio-polyethylene (PE) and bio-polyamide (Nylon 11), which act similar to other petroleum-derived plastics. Bio-based PE cannot be differentiated from PE made from petroleum.

  • Biopolymers are materials made by living creatures, and include chitin, lignin, cellulose, protein fiber and plant polyester, to name a few. Because these materials are made directly from living creatures, they are expected to be compostable, completely biodegradable, and ideally marine degradable within a reasonable timeframe.

Just like with bio-derived plastics, biopolymers can be processed in manner that makes them have the same long-lasting characteristics as petroleum-based plastics.

Hence, it is important to look which bioplastic material is being used and how it degrades when disposed.

Bio-based Petroleum product
Compostable PLA, PHA, PBS PBAT, PCL
Non-compostable PE, PET, PA, PTT PP, PE, PET
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.