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Why You Should NOT Switch To ‘Eco-friendly’ Pads, explained

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 choice and safety.

June 28, 2021. 20 mins read | Kartik Johari

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 fuelling 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.

Source: Mladen Antonov/EPA

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!

A cartoon illustration from Times of India dated February 17, 2018.

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.

 
 

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.

The promise of biodegradable pads. Source: jing.fm

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, leakproof and robust, most ‘organic’ 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 supersolution 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?

Image for representational purposes. Source: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Yup, we didn’t think so.

Thus, even if we did manage to design an “eco-friendly pad” that uses 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? 

TRUTH PILL #2: All menstrual products, if disposed of correctly, are equally green!

Next comes the question of disposal. Compostable eco-friendly 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.

Page 17, Management of Menstrual Waste – Insights from India and Pakistan (2018), WaterAid India, Menstrual Health Alliance India

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 building 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!”

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 not equal to compostable. Remember that!)

 

ctrl+altERNATIVE+del 

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 infection, 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, 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 years for years. However, there is a problem—insertion.

A helpful guide to inserting cups. Source: PeeSafe/BigBasket

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 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. 

An illustration on how to properly wash cloth pads | Source: Goonj NGO

FOUR | No water anywhere

The conversation around 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 cup. (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.

Source: Reuters

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, containers of gutkha and pan masala crucial to daily life? Yet, they do not headline frenzied editorials about clogged drains and 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?

Page 03, Management of Menstrual Waste – Insights from India and Pakistan (2018), WaterAid India, Menstrual Health Alliance 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.

 

POLLUTION SOLUTION

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 incentivised, 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 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.

The Padcare machine developed by Dhariya | Source: Padcare
 

Closer to home, this year, a 25-year-old Pune engineer Ajinkya Dhariya also developed a machine to recycle menstrual waste, Padcare. While, 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.

Bedekar’s Ashudinashak

So, why are these technologies not being incentivised? 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?

Stop guilting women over a basic need!

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.

https://twitter.com/magpievw/status/1403903436165242886?s=203

Comments (6)

  • Preyyy

    June 12, 2021

    Really good read!

  • Vishakha

    June 12, 2021

    An eye opening article.

  • Shrusawant

    June 12, 2021

    Really an eye opener! Very informative and didn't feel that u were advertising your product rather educating women. Keep up the good job. Might as well try Rio.

  • Prachi

    June 13, 2021

    Enlightening. There is an error in the article though. The text says half of british women and a quarter of American women don't know where the vagina is. The illustration shows vice versa.

  • Nikita

    June 13, 2021

    It is so obvious you're ranting to promote your own brand that's all! And women are being educated about using menstrual cups. My 13 yr old niece uses it (I never told her or taught her). Women in villages are also trained by lot of groups. While you're busy finding the negatives, many are working to do better. You should find better reasons to promote your pad! And yes, nobody is guilting women. How you play the woman card here!! Women are keen on finding better ways of managing their periods. Period.

  • Meeti

    June 13, 2021

    Bold and great article! Kudos to the one who has written and researched on the topic! Eco friendly is the new word which can be misleading too! Though you are also promoting your brand via this blog but the points raised are VALID and deserve ATTENTION!! Many young girls and women who are blindly switching to eco friendly alternatives will definitely do a rethink after reading this blog 👍👍

  • Lahari

    June 13, 2021

    So how can I not feel guilty when I use your pads? How are you tapping into my mind that it’s ok to use plastic that continues to pollute environment even though pad related waste is very less in comparison? Honestly I loved your branding message but I haven’t bought one because using a cup and a piece of cloth is much better than dumping my plastic waste into the environment.

  • Vaishu

    June 13, 2021

    I hadn't looked at this from this perspective.

  • Alex

    June 14, 2021

    This article is so cynical I feel like giving it a thumbs down (if it were on YouTube). I don’t understand why you would write something like this in the first place because it does your brand no favours. The only thing I’m looking for after reading this article is a comment box and not your product page lol. Good luck trying to get more customers by writing negative shit like this.

  • June 14, 2021

    Well written. So many questions...is anyone thinking of answers?

  • June 15, 2021

    Very thoughtful post

  • June 15, 2021

    This is a very well written and comprehensive article, with a different perspective. I hope more people see this and a mindset change sets in soon. Also, thank you for putting references everywhere possible, really appreciate it!

  • Gagan Chandoke

    June 16, 2021

    My take: I had already researched when I was looking for greener solutions so know most of whats said. Its a long debate but.. Clearly the big brands are getting affected.. So there's a very high chance that they themselves float these articles. The game is all for educated city women. Rest are not bothered or can't afford to be bothered. The cup is obviously the best solution.. But it comes with its cumbersome issues. But if you can overcome that, even the article slyly cannot deny. About pads.. Yes, not truly biodegradable.. But... Reduction of plastic components is immense.. (by about 90%). They have tried hard to convince that poor bleeding women shouldn't need to think about all this.. (ya right.. The ones thinking are hardly a fraction, not poor, and ready for the extra mile) One thing I'm going to explore though is the discarding responsibly part.

  • June 18, 2021

    I feel this article is misplaced. These alternative menstrual choices are usually advertised to the urban women with the resources to make that choice. And toilets and water in rural areas, should be fought for regardless of this issue. And just because our current social pathos are against it, shouldn't be a deterrent to advocate more sustainable choices. I agree that it's not sustainable if you are not actually composting it etc, but this should be an impetus to educate people more and not the other way round.

  • Anjani Joshi Pura

    June 21, 2021

    Very very useful info. More & more people/ladies/girls Should know about this info. Please make it public by using other sources.

  • Admin

    June 22, 2021

    Hi Anjani, thanks so much for your kind words. As a brand we believe in speaking truth to power and reading between the lines! :) Our founder has already written a piece on the same for Financial Express. DO check that out, too!

  • Admin

    June 22, 2021

    There is a difference, we feel, between advocating sustainable choices and pressuring women into switching. Even if the women being addressed by marketing campaigns are urban women with more access to resources like toilets and water, it is NOT okay to guilt/pressure them, as cup/eco-pads often do. If one chooses to be more responsible towards the planet, good on them! However, that is their personal choice and cannot be made a universal standard. As for the move to educate women, we 100% agree. But education is not a one-way road, it is also important to equip menstruators with nuances that exist in the market.

  • Admin

    June 22, 2021

    Hello, this article has not been 'floated' by any big brand! RIO, as a brand, believes in speaking truth to power and found it important to highlight these points so that menstruators can make an educated decision about the product they use. We have admitted quite clearly that cups are the best when it comes to environmental compliance. We do not want to deny this at all. As for eco-pads, that is a slightly problematic argument (do refer to the chart from WaterAid India). As we have illustrated all pads (plastic or not) have excellent methods of disposal that can make sure they have little or no carbon footprint. Thus we feel the onus needs to be shifted from the menstruator to waste processing processes that can help increase sustainability for all products! The first step to this would be to collect sanitary waste separately from each household. We, along with various other organisations are gunning for such change.

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