Have you ever wondered what happens to your sanitary napkin once you dispose it off? Largely, there are three possibilities, according to Shradha Shreejaya, ecologist and coordinator at Thanal Trust, a green NGO in Kerala:
1. In case women choose to dispose off a sanitary napkin in a dustbin, it’s probably going to end up in a landfill. There, it will stay for hundreds of years, buried under a piling mountain of trash. The pad contains super absorbent polymers and a layer of polyethelene (both made of plastic), ensuring that it doesn’t decompose easily.
2. If the sanitary napkin is burnt, it releases toxic chemicals which harm the environment. Because of the elements of plastic used, the pads can combust completely only when heated to a temperature of 800 degrees Celsius for 4-5 minutes. Without this, the plastic won’t be burnt completely and will just add to the non-biodegradable waste pile.
3. In case they are flushed down the toilet, the pads are bound to block the drainage. Because of the absorbent gels and material used, these pads collect moisture and waste, do not disintegrate easily and choke pipes. The blockages caused often require people to go into manholes and remove them with their hands.
So what’s the solution? The Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective (SMKC) says, go the bio-degradable and toxin-free way.
SMKC has also roped in local producers of sustainable menstrual hygiene products like reusable cloth pads, biodegradable and toxin-free pads and menstrual cups.
SMKC’s goal: To make sustainable menstruation products and practices a reality.
Shradha has always held a keen interest in environment and waste management. But her interest in sustainability and menstrual products piqued in 2014 at a conference in New Delhi. She moved to Thiruvananthapuram from Puducherry after completing her education in 2016.
She observed then that in Kerala, women seemed to have more access to menstrual hygiene products – disposable sanitary napkins mostly.
“But there was a certain indifference along the lines of “what’s there to talk about it?” The debate was turning political (the Sabarimala issue, #happytobleed campaign) without addressing the sustainability issue,” Shradha says.
So in December, she began reaching out to people for SMKC through a Facebook group. Many people joined in, including local manufacturers like V-Cup (menstrual cups), Ecofemme (reusable cloth pads), and Kanika (non-toxic pads) and Namaskrithi (plastic-free cloth pads) among others, as well as activists working towards environment, waste management and gender equality.
“There was already so much conversation and scope to work on sustainable menstruation products in Kerala itself but there had been little connection between all of them,” Shradha says. She adds that they spent the first three months just reaching a common understanding, before they began reaching out to people.
Their interaction and planning resulted in a campaign called ‘Celebrate Menstruation’ on March 8, International Women’s Day, in Thiruvananthapuram.
The team set up camp at Manaveeyam Veedhi, where they put for sale sustainable menstrual hygiene products including cloth pads and menstrual cups. In Calicut, they did something similar on March 9 and also held screenings of documentaries and panel discussions. Shardha says that the response was quite overwhelming, with over 600 people showing interest and buying the products.
One of the key achievements was that the mayor as well as the deputy mayor of Thiruvananthapuram took note of the campaign and pledged solidarity. The deputy mayor, Rakhi Ravikumar, even said she would actively participate in the campaign, Shradha says.
Issues to be tackled
While SMKC has been off to a good start, there are plenty of practical issues to be dealt with – the lack of clean water and sunlight for one.
The fact that menstruation is still talked about in hushed tones is no secret. In such a scenario, what does a school girl do if she wants to wash and dry or store her cloth pad when she’s at school? Or what do working women do where with the used cloth pad at work?
Shradha says they are well aware of these issues and therefore, the collective is trying to address them by working on different levels – by speaking to healthcare officials, by holding discussions in educational institutions and by taking it up at corporation level.
The Red Cycle, an organization working to raise awareness about menstruation and debunk taboos and myths, is one the members of the Collective who has taken up the educator’s role. So far, they have held awareness sessions in two schools and discussions in three colleges in Calicut.
A problem that Shradha says they face with healthcare officials is that they don’t believe them when they talk about the connection between using disposable sanitary pads and health risks for women.
“There is a lack of interest, and hence, lack of concrete research in women’s reproductive health. We can’t prove to them without doubt that the dioxins in those pads increase risk of cervical cancer and infertility. But if A uses B and A has C and this is repeated often enough, we can deduce a connection between A and C right?” Shradha argues.
Another problem with healthcare professionals is that even when women go to them to ask about alternatives to disposable sanitary pads, the healthcare professionals aren’t aware about the alternatives either.
At the corporation level, SMKC is trying to speak to Panchayats and the Thiruvanthapuram Municipal Corporation to make them accountable for promoting sustainable menstruation hygiene products as well as proper disposal of sanitary pads.
SMKC is also trying to make infrastructure a part of their efforts – this would help school girls and working women correctly store or clean reusable sanitary napkins at school and work respectively.
“All of this is still a work in progress. There are a lot of things we have yet to figure out and we’ll do it along the way,” says Shradha.
Sustainable menstruation and gender rights
Apart from normalising menstruation and making sustainable menstrual hygiene products accessible to women, SMKC sees a deeper connection with women’s rights.
For one, the manufacturers they are promoting through the Collective are local ones, which also provide employment to many women too.
“The linear economy model doesn’t work here where we assume that these alternative producers will not be able to compete with mainstream brands because they do not have the capacity to scale it. There are production and consumption patterns which can help these small groups within their capacity,” Shradha says.
MK Balamohan, a gender and queer rights activist explains, “The reason alternative products like cloth pads and menstrual cups are expensive is also because not many people buy them. You make them more popular, it will automatically involve more people and the prices will go down.”
Shradha says that because the premise of gender equality is the right to choice, they do not endorse a blanket ban on disposable sanitary products. However, if sustainable alternatives are made popular, perhaps they will help reduce sanitary waste to some extent.
“There are a lot of accessibility and awareness issues to be addressed. But if they are available and women are more aware about how they sanitary waste is affecting the environment, I am quite sure they will at least think about acting on it. Even if a woman uses a cloth pad for two days out of five, it will create a significant impact,” she says.