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Managing India’s sanitary waste

India’s indifference in dealing with sanitary waste is evidenced by the fact that we don’t have any reliable numbers to look at while deciding policy.

Abhishek Ganesh and Armin Rosencranz | New Delhi |

India has more than 350 million menstruating women. Assuming 35 per cent of these women use sanitary napkins regularly at an average of eight pads a month, 200 tonnes of sanitary napkin waste are generated every day.

India’s indifference in dealing with sanitary waste is evidenced by the fact that we don’t have any reliable numbers to look at while deciding policy. The environment portal ‘Down to Earth’ estimated that 432 million pads are disposed every month. In a government study conducted in 2011, it was estimated that merely 12 per cent of the 335 million menstruating women had access to disposable sanitary napkins. This becomes worse at the rural level, with a further chasm in reliable information on menstrual waste management practises.

As countries across the world have started making funding for menstrual hygiene management mandatory, the UNICEF has also pitched in to assist the process. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided a grant to find a sustainable menstrual hygiene management solution in India. In urban areas, sanitary waste is usually disposed of in dustbins, which eventually makes its way into one of the many landfills. Sanitary napkins that are discarded in public washrooms are often flushed down the toilet or left in bathroom corners. In rural areas, a majority of women bury their napkins. Incineration, as a method of waste disposal, is rare.

Women in rural areas generally don’t use underwear and the expensive sanitary pads in the market are of no use to them. As a result, many rural women often use infection-causing rags during their cycle. The chief issue is the lack of information surrounding menstrual hygiene in schools. Menstrual Health Management and the use of menstrual hygiene products is not taught in schools in India. While the government has issued guidelines for waste management in schools suggesting small incinerators, implementation is not effective for there is a stigma surrounding menstruation. The most prevalent research done today is the assessment of knowledge of menstrual practises.

Thus, research surrounding menstrual waste management takes a back seat. The Central Government of India issued guidelines to deal with sanitary waste management. The policy largely hinges on installing low cost incinerators. However, this requires the presence of infrastructure. Additionally, incineration causes pollution due to the emissions caused by fossil fuels used to run the machine. In rural areas, the government had suggested deep pit burial and composting. However, we fail to remember that plastic takes several years to decompose. Jagrithi, a student project promoted by the Jindal Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, was founded by JGU students Abhishekh Ganesh, Shine Varghese and Sagar Sreshta to address the concern surrounding the lack of knowledge and use of sanitary pads in rural areas.

Jagrithi aims to enable rural-unemployed women to become social entrepreneurs who will engage in the production and sale of low-cost, high-quality sanitary pads. Scaling this enterprise can contribute to tackling the problem of accessibility of sanitary pads, the stigma attached to them and, ultimately, help alleviate poverty for many rural women. Jagrithi has partnered with a scientist from Mathura to provide low-cost sanitary napkin manufacturing units to produce Wearable Sanitary Pads – a cloth frame that can be worn at the time of menstrual cycle, thereby solving the issue of women not wearing innerwear to hold pads. Jagrithi visited 76 villages in India, compiling necessary information on the difficulties faced by women during their menstrual cycles in order to come up with this low cost, environment friendly product that provides excellent absorption.

The eight-step process to make the Wearable Sanitary Pad requires soft wood pulp, super absorbent polymer and a three-side seal pouch. The process starts with defibrillation (consisting of mixing and pulverizing), fluffing and sap mixing. Then comes the weighing and dye filling and compacting the fluff to form a sanitary pad. The fluff is then put in a threeside seal pouch and sealed with adhesive and paper. UV treatment disinfects the product and the pad is packaged in sealable bags. The pads are eco-friendly because no synthetic polymers are used.

They use cellulose-based polymer which is natural for water absorption. Instead of synthetic adhesives, heat pressing is used. Thus, even if the pads are buried, they do not cause any soil pollution. The pilot run of the product has been confirmed for the village of Sisana, in Haryana, with a population of 4,675 women. The manufacturing machine costs about Rs 60,000 to 70,000 per semiautomated unit while a fully automated unit will cost about Rs 150,000. The finished product will retail at Rs 10 for a pack of 6 pads while the wholesale price will average at Rs 7.50 for a pack of 6.

To meet the requirements of women in India, 30 crore pads need to be produced annually. This creates a plethora of employment opportunities. The manufacturing, spearheaded by women’s selfhelp groups and mini cottage and smallscale industries, will further incentivise the rural population to take part in the conversation around menstrual health, removing it from the realm of social taboo.

Sanitary Waste Management is not just a concern of the Health Ministry. Other structures in society, such as the family and educational institutions, need to talk about alternate menstrual hygiene practices and waste management to effectively tackle this severe environmental hazard.

(The writers are respectively, engaged in admissions and outreach and a professor of law at the O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat)