Problem of menstrual waste disposal in India – Explained, pointwise

Source: DowntoEarth1, DowntoEarth2

Syllabus: GS1 – Women issues, GS2 – Health

Relevance: How menstrual waste contributes to India’s solid waste problem? and steps that can be taken to solve this issue.

Introduction

Sanitary waste disposal has become an increasing problem in India. As per the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI), India has 12.3 billion disposable sanitary napkins to take care of every year, the majority of which are not biodegradable/compostable. The impact of sanitary waste disposal is more pronounced due to the unorganised ways of municipal solid waste management and poor community collection, disposal and transportation networks in the cities and villages of India.

Reasons 

Menstrual waste has become a big problem due to the following reasons:

  • Usage of non-biodegradable napkins: Menstrual waste disposal has become an increasing problem in India. Because the plastic used in disposable sanitary napkins is not bio-degradable and leads to health and environmental hazards.
    • Not only do these products take hundreds of years to decompose, but because of the SAP (Super Absorbent Polymers) present in commercial sanitary napkins, they absorb and retain 30 or more times their weight in fluid. This often leads to clogging of toilets, sewerage systems, and drains, and when burned, release toxic fumes like dioxins and furans that are harmful to users and the environment.
  • Unorganized ways of municipal solid waste management: The impact is more pronounced because of the unorganized ways of municipal solid waste management and poor community collection, disposal, and transportation networks in the cities and villages.
  • Lack of discussion & debate: Due to persistent social and cultural taboos, the topic of menstrual waste management doesn’t get the attention that it merits.
    • Many girls and women lack access to those waste management options that exist due to their limited ability to negotiate for solutions because of a continued culture of silence associated with menstruation.
  • Lack of appropriate disposal and treatment options leads to unsafe management of the waste.
  • Lack of access to disposal options may lead girls and women to use otherwise hygienic products in an unhygienic manner (e.g., use a pad for longer than it should be).
  • Lastly, the lack of awareness and an increased dependency on inorganic products makes the switch difficult
Rules concerning disposal

The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules consider menstrual waste as solid waste and defines it as sanitary waste within the same. The Rules go on to explain the responsibilities of the waste generator, local authorities and gram panchayats, and producers of sanitary products.

  • SWM Rules acknowledge that according to the Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016, items contaminated with blood and body fluids, including cotton, dressings, soiled plaster casts, lines, and bedding, are bio-medical waste and should be incinerated, autoclaved, or microwaved to destroy pathogens.
  • Sanitary waste needs to be wrapped securely in the pouches provided by the manufacturer or brand owners and handed over separately to the waste collector to avoid manual handling of such waste, according to SWM, 2016.

But the implementation of these rules on the ground is negligible.

Impact
  • Unhygienic working conditions for waste workers: The majority of waste workers do not use any personal protective equipment while collecting / handling waste. They are exposed to harmful microorganisms like staphylococcus, e. coli, and salmonella typhus, which can cause diseases like tetanus and hepatitis.
  • Overfilling of landfills: The long-term impact of lack of segregation can cause overfilling of landfills with chemicals and plastic-laden sanitary pads. These plastic products may even convert into smaller particles called microplastics, which are an emerging threat to our environment.
  • Huge carbon footprint: A year worth of menstrual waste products generates a carbon footprint equivalent to 5.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year in the United Kingdom, according to a study.
  • Menstrual waste that is flushed down the toilets or discarded in water bodies comes in direct contact with water, which then serves as breeding grounds for bacteria that contaminate the drinking water.
  • Non-biodegradable: The plastic components of the waste require 400 years to degrade in the landfill, but only when the waste is decomposed in an organic open-air environment. Waste discarded in polyethylene bags devoid of air may take almost double the time. Or may never biodegrade at all.
    • The single usage plastic components in these products mostly find their way to the landfill where it stays there for the next 500 years at least.
  • Health concerns: Inorganic sanitary products contain bisphenol A and bisphenol S, industrial chemicals used to make certain plastics, which can cause hindrance in embryonic development.
    • In order to absorb more wetness, most commercially available menstrual products have a synthetic fiber called rayon. During the process of rayon bleaching, dioxin — a well-known carcinogen — is released that can cause liver dysfunction.
    • Hormone disruptors: Several manufacturers add deodorising agents to sanitary napkins to keep them ‘fresh’. But this may involve usage of chemicals that can be potential hormone disruptors, cancer-causing chemicals
  • Toxic fumes: Small-scale incinerators have emerged as the preferred technology for disposing of used sanitary pads and have been adopted by educational institutions and hostels in the villages. These low-cost methods generate toxic fumes, adding to the harm caused to the environment and our health.
Suggestions/measures
  • Segregation and immediate disposal should be done by the user. This should be followed by collection and transportation, and secondary segregation by the waste collector and storage treatment, and finally disposal or recycling.
  • For compostable products, there should be clear labelling on product packages providing instructions on disposal.
  • Classification as biomedical waste: It is important that “menstrual waste is classified as biomedical waste so that its proper disposal using correct technologies can be carried out
  • Tax rebates, subsidies must be issued if a tested organic product releases in the market in order to obtain a significant customer shift.
  • Tampons and organic pads, however, can also contain plastic but in lower proportions. Hence, menstrual cups are the only non-plastic alternatives.
  • Systems are set up to facilitate proper waste handling
  • Raising awareness on menstrual hygiene management and breaking the silence and stigma around menstruation on the issue of safe disposal, other ministries need to move cohesively together – and quickly.
Conclusion

The only way to get menstrual waste disposed of safely and efficiently requires collective attention to this massive environmental health issue.

Also Read: Biomedical Waste during the pandemic – Explained
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