Sanitary Napkins and the Environmental impact

Part -2: Terminologies for Eco friendly products

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.

The market today has a wide range of products which claim to cause little to no harm to the environment and thus target the consumer who wishes to make a difference. But it might not hold much truth as the consumers are often unaware about the differences and specifications of each term used. Most of the times such sobriquets just act like bait and the well-intentioned buyers are thus fooled without him realizing it.

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

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

These are a few eco-friendly terminologies which are often used by brands to market their sanitary napkins and diapers. 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 a simple explanation for 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.

  • Materials 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 time frame. 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.

Thus, knowing the subtle differences is highly important to become a conscious consumer. There might be any eco friendly sanitary pads in India but that can mean any of the above terms. Organic sanitary pads ought to be used on a large scale in the future to lessen the harmful effects it has to the environment.

In a country as densely populated as India, organic sanitary pads and the likes should be manufactured and sold more than the plastic ones. This is something that will not yield immediate outcomes but as time passes it will make us more sustainable as a community. Eco friendly sanitary pads in India should not be a luxury but normality.

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