The push to guilt women into using cups or biodegradable pads is premature, misplaced, and sexist. While plastic waste is a pressing concern, so are menstrual choices and safety.
“100% organic cotton sanitary pads made entirely of bamboo pulp and organic cotton,” reads a blurb on one of India’s many new niche eco-friendly pad brands. “Breathable and compostable bio-back layer, GOST certified 100% organic cotton and bio-SAP sheet equipped,” promises another in the popular science-speak eco-friendly pad brands use to flaunt (and often obfuscate) legitimacy. These are just two of the several small, niche eco-friendly pad brands that have joined what many Indian newspapers are calling ‘the quiet revolution’ brewing in India to ‘do away’ with plastic periods. ‘India has 121 million users of sanitary pads, who with their 12 billion plastic pads per year are clogging drains, blocking landfills and fueling climate change’, our eco-friendly pad warriors are raging—marketing their product as the perfect fit to clean your vagina, soul and carbon footprint. However, just like Shakespeare’s, “All that glitters may not be gold”, all that’s greenwashed may not actually be green.
What are biodegradable sanitary pads?
Biodegradable sanitary napkins are pads made up of natural and compostable materials such as banana fibre, corn starch, water hyacinth, organic cotton, etc., which are comfortable, hygienic, cost-effective, and have a good capacity to absorb blood adequately, or at least this is what our eco-friendly pad brands tell us they are. Let’s see for ourselves, shall we?
The concept of the ‘100% eco-friendly pad’ is, unfortunately, just the latest iteration of a savvy marketing strategy in environmentalist greenwashing. Whether made of plastic, paper or bamboo, it is important to note—a pad is as polluting as its process of manufacture and its disposal mechanism. Whether composed or incinerated, there are many nuances to the green pad conversation that are nearly ironed out by the media blitz weaponising passion and guilt to shame women into saving the world, even as they bleed out their insides. And it is this guilting and shaming that need to be addressed. There are many priorities in a country that still flinches at the sound of the word ‘period’, 64% of whose population (NFHS, 2016) continue to lack access to pads. There are many realities women have to face before feeling shame even for the period products they choose to use!
So let’s go debunk some of our freshly minted eco-friendly pad warriors’ favourite myths and help both our menstruators and our trees breathe easy.,/p>
NO PAD GREEN ENOUGH
Let us begin by addressing the compostable elephant in the room. For any product to be entirely biodegradable or recyclable, it needs to be made of a single component. Microbes in soil or composting pits can then chew and digest this single component, helping it merge into the soil. The common plastic sanitary pad, however, is made of:
1) Superabsorbent Polymer, wood pulp, and cotton fibres constitute the absorbent filling,
2) A cotton-plastic wrap or top sheet; and
3) Fibre and plastic materials for wings and waterproof linings.
Can we replace these materials? In theory, yes. We can switch the absorbent material with bamboo fibre and all the plastic with 100% organic cotton. But that still makes two components. To be truly compostable, we need just one. Further, as pads are expected to be waterproof, leak-proof and robust, most ‘organic’ and biodegradable sanitary pads are treated with plastic or given a plastic wrap. The plastic wrap hinders disintegration in composting pits and, if processed in low flame incinerators, adds to pollution. Thus, making things not so clean.
DUMP THE DISPOSAL MYTHS
Bamboo fibre, 100% natural and compostable, is the new super solution in the clean pad-world. Yet, sadly, all is not as clean as it seems.
TRUTH PILL #1: The cost of producing green ingredients
Bamboo shoots seem like miracle ingredients. But what do they cost the environment to make? Hours-long, water-intensive, chemical-laden extraction techniques that can be toxic to skin and effluent-heavy (read this piece from The Guardian or this one from Tortoise & Lady Grey for more). Also, China is the only country that produces bamboo on a commercial scale. Often with no set standards or pesticide guidelines. Often at the cost of cute panda homes. Any of this mentioned in the eco-friendly pad marketing spiel? Yup, we didn’t think so. Thus, even if we did manage to design “eco-friendly, biodegradable sanitary napkins” that use various forms of just one green ingredient, it may merge into the soil quickly, but what would the cost of producing that one ingredient be?,/p>,p>TRUTH PILL #2: All menstrual products, if disposed of correctly, are equally green!
Next comes the question of disposal. Compostable, eco-friendly, and biodegradable cotton pads, if bundled into black plastic bags alongside other household waste to be dumped somewhere or burnt as a whole, will be as polluting as plastic pads. Plastic pads, meanwhile, if divided into their components and recycled, will be entirely non-polluting. This is illustrated perfectly by this chart from a 2018 paper by WaterAid India’s Arundhati Muralidharan.
TRUTH PILL #3: Friendly neighbourhood compost pit
Before I go into this point, I just want a show of hands. How many of you compost your vegetable peels? How many of you even have a backyard (Mumbai people sit down) or build a compost pit? There is no point using compostable pads unless they are properly composted. And ‘properly composting’ isn’t as easy as it sounds! Read what this article published by NGO GreenTheRed has to say:
“The biggest benefit of anything biodegradable is that we can compost it in our backyard; otherwise, it has to be sent to landfills (involving waste management workers, systems; an elaborate processes). In the case of biodegradable ‘sanitary’ pads, it would be difficult for a house of 3 menstruators to compost blood-soaked 78 (3 x 16 pads per month) in their compost at home. This would be mixed with kitchen and other wet waste and will need looking after, not to mention the enormous amounts of space it will require for 6 months with the other pads that we will keep adding to it; 450+ pads at a point in time!”,/p>
The solution, thus, would not be to shame a pad for what it is made of but to ensure that each pad, irrespective of its make, gets the right disposal! (Also, biodegradable is not equal to compostable. Remember that!)
The lack of menstrual hygiene is the fifth biggest killer of women in the world, close behind heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is easy to think of saving icebergs while not suffering from dermatitis, fatal urinary tract infections, genital tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, or cervical cancer caused by unhygienic cloth pads. It is easy to think about using Rs. 990 one-time investment cups when that much money exists to make a one-time investment. It is easy to insert a cup if you know where your vagina is and will not be ostracised for it; easy to wash a cloth pad if you have running water, and easy to use a pad (plastic or otherwise), if you are a user of underwear. What do women need? Not what we think they need. What do they actually need? Why are they second class citizens even in a conversation about the single most female activity—menstrual bleeding? Still, let us tackle every point on pad alternatives:
ONE | The comfort cost of eco-friendly pads
Over their history of roughly 170 years, pads have evolved to take the shape of a woman’s body, stick firmly to underwear, have odour-lock, anti-bacterial properties and absorbent properties that can allow them to last for up to 6+ hours. Yet despite hours of r&d, pads still fill up in 2-3 hours, fail to absorb clots, move away from place and leak, causing women to deal with the embarrassment of a stain.
From the dark ages.
Can garden-variety cloth pads or eco-friendly pads which do not have half these advancements help tackle heavy flow, clots, and staining? Or are women expected, as always, to take the fall and give up on their comfort for the sake of others? But that is not necessary, some would argue. There exist eco-friendly pads with these facilities. I agree. But at what cost?
Compare that to our brand, which sells at ₹3 for a regular pad and ₹10-13 for a heavy flow pad. Still too expensive for many, we are told. So, who bears this elevated cost of green eco-friendly pads? Not the government, not pad companies—but the end customer, further affecting access, distribution and affordability.
TWO | The cup and the insertion conversation
The one true solution to climate damage is the use of cups. Made of silicone, these can run on for years. However, there is a problem—insertion
Not sure what I mean? Try getting your house help or her 18-year-old daughter (men, please do not try this stunt unsupervised/unsolicited) to switch to cups. You’ll get exactly what I mean. Several women do not experience pushing anything into their vagina until sex. As a matter of fact, such an action is considered taboo, and realistically not a taboo that can be overturned overnight. Nearly half of British women, a quarter of American women and 6 of 10 Indian women have no clue where the vagina is. Moreover, according to a Euro monitor survey, roughly, only 5% of the Indian women population are even aware of cups and tampons. And those who do know, often stay far away due to rumours about how cups/tampons can do away with ‘purity before marriage’.
Cups are also an issue for women suffering from heavy flow periods, those who are differently-abled and those with histories of trauma. Blanket urging or guilting women to switch to cups without educational progress, therefore, barely makes sense.
THREE | The corollaries of cloth
The science behind the use of cloth or cloth pads is that post-use and wash; the material is dried in sunlight. A natural disinfectant, sunlight cleans these pads of any bacterial or fungal matter that may have accumulated on them. However, mired in shame, women across India hide their cloth pads or dry them in secret places—increasing the chances of infection.
FOUR | No water anywhere
The conversation around the cloth, cloth pads and menstrual cups is predicated on the facile assumption that women have access to running tap water, close to their house to wash their pads or empty and wash their cups. (Part of the Jal Jeevan Mission, tap water for all is still a distant 2024 goal for the Modi government.) To correctly wash a cloth pad, it must be soaked in water for between 40 min to 2 hours and then washed with water and a soft detergent. Assuming women have the space to soak their blood laden pads, will they have access to clean tap water? Even if they do, what will be the water cost of such an activity? Each pad requires between 1-2 litres of water for thorough washing—preferably not from a river. That would mean approximately the use of 4.03 billion litres of water a year.
Word of caution: It’s a very, very rough estimation. Mainly made to cause horror and frenzy as numbers in billions often do. Just like the calculation used to show the huge mountain of pads collecting and clogging the ecosystem. The focal point here, ought to be something else, entirely. For example, toilets.
In villages and chawls, women continue to lack access to clean toilets close to home and have to use either community or public toilets. Try explaining to these women dealing with choked groundwater, delayed rains or water that comes for two hours every day that pads or cups are the way forward. They’ll smile—after all, to them, our elitist priorities are nothing new.
DATA AND MISPLACED PRIORITIES:
Let me offer yet another calculation.
Compare this now to an excerpt from the same report that gives us the above data points:
“…almost 66 per cent of plastic waste comprises mixed waste — polybags, multilayer pouches used for packing food items…sourced mainly from households and residential localities. These, according to the study, were plastic waste which could not be recycled. An IIT Kharagpur study in July 2018 found more than one-fifth of the silt that clogs Delhi’s drains during the monsoon months to be made up of empty gutkha and pan masala packets”.”
Are packaging, polybags, and containers of gutkha and pan masala crucial to daily life? Yet, they do not headline frenzied editorials about clogged drains and the need for immediate action. Menstrual products, though, are as essential to a woman’s life as food and water, something women have to use—not some opulent lifestyle choice for which they must be shamed and slandered. Yet, campaign after campaign sets its sights on crippling an industry already hamstrung by the lack of discourse and awareness. Why anyone intending to redress the plight of menstruating women in India make a business out of alienating a majority of them is a question one needs to ask. Wouldn’t it be prudent to tackle the access and information issue at first? Wouldn’t it be prudent to focus all energy on empowering women to choose the pad they are most comfortable with first? Another calculation, a rather provocative one from Arundhati Muralidharan’s aforementioned paper: How many sanitary pads are used by menstruating women in India?
12 billion, a number that has been widely quoted across articles, infographics, and videos to signal an imminent climate catastrophe caused by the world’s largest congregation of menstruators. To counter this, I offer another calculation. According to an estimation by Earthday.org, a citizen of the US uses 13+ plastic PET bottles a month to consume juices, drinks, pharmaceuticals, etc. And yet, here we are, talking about the former. Because numbers create panic. Millions, billions, trillions appear like huge looming mountains to our imagination—taking away from reality, skewing our judgement. But all hope is not lost. Let’s look at the example of PET.
Thermoplastic polymer resin, Polyethylene terephthalate, used in food packaging, pharma and bottles, is highly toxic on being burnt and space-filling in landfills. Yet, (and despite the existence of bio-PET), PET has not been replaced. Instead, its management has been successfully incentivized, leading to almost 70% being recycled in India without the involvement of users, manufacturers and even the government. Amazing, isn’t it? And extremely disheartening. Because enough processes exist globally and in India to safely dispose of and even recycle menstrual waste. Just like organisations and governments did with PET. Countries such as the UK and Sweden, for example, have highly sophisticated machines which separate out the pad into its various components. Japan has developed technology to create electricity out of soiled diapers.
Closer to home, this year, a 25-year-old Pune engineer Ajinkya Dhariya also developed a machine to recycle menstrual waste, Padcare. Nearly 6 years back, Vadodara based innovator Shyam Sunder Bedekar invented the Ashudinashak, an eco-friendly clay incinerator that can be operated by women and used to easily dispose of pads. So, why are these technologies not being incentivized? Why is the onus of saving the environment either on women who are anyway ostracised for bleeding, or on pad companies who, anyway, profit at a relatively low margin? Why are women being shamed into choosing the ‘right option’ instead of what is right for them in dealing with some of the most painful and uncomfortable days of their life?
In conclusion, while the data is unambiguous and rooted in science, the intentions of different stakeholders may not be. Generating menstrual information on the basis of an empathetic worldview, in consideration of practical realities is an inevitable first step. Once this process begins in earnest, reimagining the technology and modes of messaging to communicate the information can be a continuous affair. While it may be worthwhile to explore novel ideas in search of better outcomes, the interests of the target audience ought not to be sacrificed at the altar of faux conscientiousness. An honest reckoning will only happen once we acknowledge the scale and complexity of the challenge at hand. While nuance may die a premature death in marketing strategies, it remains integral to meaningful, lasting change. A bad pad may be a good place to start, after all.
July 10, 2023. 16 mins read
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