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Sustainable Menstruation

05/03/2015 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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In the last year I have slowly changed from using brand-name products for cleaning my house, clothes, and myself to naturally and locally made Indian products and I couldn't be more impressed. From soapnuts for washing my clothes and dishes to neem leaves to guard my clothes from moths, I've found that most traditional methods of caring for oneself and one's home are superior to those I've grown accustomed to in the West.

More recently, I made a switch from using tampons to reusable cloth menstrual pads. I'll be honest: tampons are absolutely more convenient and in many situations more comfortable. However, what I've learned over the past year about the damage that sanitary waste does to our environment was enough for me to withstand whatever minor inconvenience I may have each month.

"Over 7 million sanitary pads are thrown away each year. They are neither biodegradable nor are they free of toxins."

In Auroville I was fortunate enough to learn about Eco Femme, an organisation that produces cotton washable cloth sanitary pads. The beauty of this project is that not only encourages women to return to the practice of using cloth pads, but it also is a livelihood building project for rural women in Tamil Nadu. And, of course, it is reducing the amount of toxic waste for garbage collectors to pick through and be buried or incinerated in municipal dumps.

According to Ribhu Vohra of Auroville's Wasteless organisation, over 7 million sanitary pads are thrown away each year. They are neither biodegradable nor are they free of toxins: because chlorine is used to bleach the materials, dioxins are released into the soil if buried and into the air if incinerated. And the amount of plastic one throws into their local dump each time they change a sanitary napkin is the equivalent of each women menstruating throwing away fifty plastic bags a month. These are some of the hidden costs, which will ultimately affect our health if we continue at this pace.

While shelling out Rs 1500 may be steep for some women who wish to switch to reusable cloth pads, it's quite a savings compared to the average sanitary napkin user who spends on average Rs 2500 per year. This is a considerable savings when you factor in that you'll be using these for at least five to six years if you take good care of them and maintain simple hygiene practices like letting the sun dry them out after you wash them.

"The amount of plastic one throws into their local dump each time they change a sanitary napkin is the equivalent of each women menstruating throwing away fifty plastic bags a month."

In recent years, it seems to be the government that has contributed to shifting women's views on the subject. Since 2010, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare began a programme to subsidise sanitary napkins for women in rural India. UNICEF has also been supplying girls with access to free pads in order to keep them in school after they reach puberty. However, neither of these schemes take into account the environmental devastation from the toxic waste this will generate. While it is commendable for institutions to intervene in women's health by providing them with sanitary napkins, it's important to think about the long-term effects of such policies so that not only women's health is sustainable, but also the planet's health. It's also worth questioning whether or not the foreign multinational corporations--like Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson--are profiting from such a government scheme.

What really strikes me about this shift, whenever I share this with older women, is that this is what they all "used to do" when they had their monthly periods. It seems to have only been in the last two generations that Indian women have shifted to these Western products that are contributing to serious environmental hazards around the country. It's ironic that in order to create a more sustainable environment one must return to more traditional practices.

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