Menstrual waste is growing in India. Although there is no official estimate of its generation in the country, a 2011 survey has calculated that 9000 tonnes of menstrual waste, largely used sanitary napkins, is generated in India every month. These sanitary napkins, soaked in bodily fluids, are disposed with regular household waste and often handled by waste pickers and collectors with bare hands. Not only is this antithetical to their basic human dignity, they are also exposed to disease-causing micro-organisms. Despite clear pleas and strong communication, manufacturers of sanitary napkins have refused to take any responsibility for their products or their appropriate, safe disposal.
Policies and laws
So far, the classification of menstrual waste in India was ambiguous. The newly revised Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 have clearly defined and categorised sanitary waste as "comprising of used diapers, sanitary towels or napkins, tampons, condoms, incontinence sheets and any other similar waste." These are placed under the category of "solid waste" and are to be disposed of as such, as "dry waste."
Manufacturers of sanitary napkins have refused to take any responsibility for their products or their appropriate, safe disposal.
According to the SWM Rules, disposal of used sanitary pads is responsibility of the waste generator who has to "wrap securely the used sanitary waste...in the pouches provided by the brand owners...and place the same in the bin meant for non-biodegradable waste."
They also lay down the duties of manufacturers and brand owners of disposable products and sanitary napkins, in that they "shall explore the possibility of using all recyclable materials in their products or they shall provide a pouch or wrapper for disposal of each napkin or diaper along with the packet of their sanitary product." The SWM Rules also require them to put in place mechanisms to collect back the packaging waste generated due to their production when dealing with non-biodegradable products. However, so far there has been no effort made by the producers to implement this rule. Manufacturers have started providing a wrapper with their products, but this is not only a plastic wrapper which adds to the plastic load, but is also an inadequate solution to the problem.
Chintan Environmental Research And Action Group has recommended that sanitary waste should not be disposed of as "dry waste", but either separately (ideal) or as "domestic hazardous waste", based on the cultural context, to minimise human handling and safeguard the health and the dignity of waste handlers and for its own handling. The extended producer responsibility (EPR) clause, too, has been built into this system, but will only be successful if implemented and monitored properly.
The burning question
In the name of disposal, the government is promoting incineration of menstrual waste. To this effect, modifications in the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) guidelines were issued in December 2013 and setting up of incinerators in schools, in women's community sanitary complexes, in primary health centres, or in any other suitable place in village, etc. was encouraged.
Plastics like PVC, polyurethene and halogen-bleached materials must be banned from all menstural products, as these are not only potentially toxic, but also more difficult to dispose of safely.
However, it must be noted that burning (between 200-400 degree Celsius) of sanitary napkins emits dioxins, which are created when any chlorine-bleached materials (like disposable sanitary napkins) are burnt. It is a dangerous policy and practice. There is absolutely no system in place to check pollutants and gases coming out of the chimneys of the machines used for burning. Even if there were, dioxins and other compounds would settle down at its bottom, and continue to be a health hazard.
This is also in violation of the rules which prohibits burning of chlorinated plastics. Dioxins and furans also get released which are one of the most toxic substances known to humankind being carcinogenic and linked to various health problems, including reproductive health and hampering development in children. Most sanitary napkins largely comprise plastics. When these are not burned, they either end up in dumps, with the same impact as other plastics choking the soil, and possibly being eaten by cows etc. Some end up in drains, blocking them. Also, others end up, via the disposal route, in our rivers, where they contribute the India's enormous plastic pollution, and might be ending up as part of our food chain when inadvertantly ingested by fish etc.
The responsibility of menstrual waste management should be shouldered by the manufacturers and the EPR clause should be made clearer and stricter. They should be motivated to use IEC activities for creating awareness amongst the public for separate disposal and collection of sanitary waste and penalties for violation of this duty by manufacturers must be prescribed. They must also be given financial incentives to produce and promote biodegradable sanitary napkins.
Burning of sanitary napkins in mini-incinerators of schools should be highly discouraged, as there is scientific evidence to show how exposure to dioxins can cause reproductive and developmental problems.
The use of safe biodegradable or reusable sanitary products (dried in the sun after each wash) should be encouraged and biodegradable options, such as the "Anandi pads" that are produced and distributed by local women self-help groups (SHGs), "Saathi pads" which are hundred per cent eco-friendly and reusable products like 'SheCup' menstrual cups must be promoted as an option.
Plastics like PVC, polyurethene and halogen-bleached materials must be banned from all menstural products, as these are not only potentially toxic, but also more difficult to dispose of safely. Also more tests are required to determine the safety of such materials when used in sanitary towels or diapers etc.
Most importantly, burning of sanitary napkins in mini-incinerators of schools should be highly discouraged, as there is enough scientific evidence to show how exposure to dioxins can cause reproductive and developmental problems. It would be ideal if only bio-degradable sanitary products were to be manufactured and used in governmental and non-governmental programmes, so that the disposal is not toxic for the children and their communities. Alternatively, deep burial is another option for such waste*.
* According to Bio-Medical Waste Rules 2016, Rule 5, disposal by deep burial should be carried out under specific premises such as a remote setting or rural area where there is no other bio-medical waste treatment facility available. This should be done only after specific approval from the said authority is given. Deep burial seems like a more feasible option than burning and therefore for better safety of the public's health should be considered as an alternative method that can be extended to sanitary waste disposal too.