A recent campaign aims to break the silence on the topic of menstruation by actually speaking up about the increasing hygiene waste and its disposal.
The five-week-long online campaign "#Periodofchange", which ended recently sought "concerted action on integrated menstrual hygiene management to ensure women are able to choose safe, hygienic and sustainable products."
It was part of a larger "Kachra Project," which seeks to mobilise people around waste issues in India in order to build a sustained social change movement.
"Through the use of technology, we create accessible resources for the public to engage with. We partner with fellow organisations to create campaigns dealing with specific streams of waste (for #periodofchange, it was menstrual hygiene waste) to provide feasible solutions," says Arpita Bhagat, Campaign Manager.
Familiar with various other ongoing campaigns on raising awareness to end the shame associated with periods, Bhagat says, "None of them focussed on the waste disposal or the environmental aspect of menstruation."
The campaign highlighted several aspects associated with the multidimensional subject including sustainability, development of menstrual hygiene management sector in India, dealing with menstrual hygiene waste, the pros and cons of reusable menstrual hygiene products and dealing with concerns and issues around shifting to alternate menstrual hygiene products.
Menstrual waste, which is currently disposed by either wrapping in newspapers or polythene bags, falls under the category of absorbent hygiene product waste.
Citing numbers, Bhagat says, "Allotting 12 napkins to a woman per month, adds up to 432 million soiled pads, weighing a staggering 9,000 tonnes a month enough to cover a landfill spread over 24 hectares."
The composition of sanitary napkins and tampons makes them a threat to the environment.
LDPE (low density polyethylene) plastic polymers and multiple layers of chlorine bleached cellulose or wood-pulp in pads contain dioxin, furans and potential carcinogens.
"These cause soil and water pollution as they leach down the surface. The long-term effects of such pollution have only begun to be understood.
"Dioxins, for instance, are hormone disruptors that damage the immune system, cause reproductive and developmental problems which can be transmitted from mothers to unborn babies," says Bhagat.
The disposal of menstrual waste as unsegregated trash in bins or in the open is another aspect of concern, because waste pickers, who often have to handle them with their bare hands, become vulnerable to infectious diseases.
"As this form of waste contains bodily fluids, it should be handled as carefully as any biomedical waste. It is likely to contain life-threatening pathogens, which can compromise the lives and health of waste pickers. Also, it is particularly degrading and against the legal right to dignity of labour," Bhagat says.
She points out that electric incinerators are lately being installed in public places for burning menstrual hygiene waste.
"None in India, reach the requisite temperature of 800 degrees Celsius, recommended by World Health Organization, to allow for safe incineration of health-related waste."
As for the women’s health, synthetic chemicals in the plastic and artificial fragrances used in pads are likely to permeate the sensitive skin following prolonged periods of contact.
Chlorine bleaching process that is used to artificially whiten these products also produces dioxin, which can cause various forms of cancer, immune system suppression, endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.
"A third of women with symptoms of vaginal itching and rashes, soreness and/or discharge have been reported to have been experiencing the symptoms of Vulval Dermatitis or Intimate Irritation," says Bhagat.
To minismise the formation of menstrual waste and reducing health risks in the process, the #periodofchange proposes sustainable alternatives of cloth pads and menstrual cups.
Reusable menstrual cups are insertable cups made of natural latex or silicone.
"These can be removed every few hours and worn again," says Bhagat adding, "Since they do not contain any chemicals, bleaches or fibers, the probablity of sensitivity or allergic reactions is minimal."
Cloth pads, however, is not a new phenomenon. Having been used for periods since ages, these are now available commercially as well, manufactured by brands like Eco Femme, Uger and Shecups.
"They are perfectly safe when washed carefully, dried in the sun and stored in a clean place," she says.
With a menstrual cup costing between Rs 700- Rs 1,200, lasting for as long as ten years, and a cloth pad worth Rs 300, surviving almost two years, both are fairly feasible alternatives to the currently available sanitary napkins which on an average, cost a woman nearly Rs 1,300 per year.
However, merely the availability of easily accessible alternatives does not offer a solution to the problem of menstrual waste.
Overcoming stigmas that continue to exist around both menstrual cups and cloth pads, is the need of the hour, to make the much-needed shift to these organic forms possible.
"The desire for a woman’s body to remain untouched, restrains her from using insertable products like menstrual cups," says Bhagat.
"That the sanitary napkins are actually degrading the female reproductive systems, is often overlooked" she says.
Bhagat also asserted that it was imperative for women to get rid of the discomfort associated with menstrual blood.
The campaign introduced a new theme each week around which online seminars (webinars) were held, followed by discussions on twitter.
"We took audience questions throughout the five weeks which were addressed in the webinars. We also circulated articles and factsheets on our website and other social media platforms as resources for engagement," says Bhagat.