No matter how stigmatized in society, we all know menstruation is the natural biological process that marks females’ reproductive phase. But what most of us still don’t know or deny is that this natural process of menstruation in women is degrading our environment with the ticking clock.
This has led to the advancement of the term “environmenstrual” in 2004 by the Women’s Environmental Network. This is a fusion term derived from two root terms “environment” and “menstrual”; (as in menstrual products, that need to be managed while disposed of). Those of you who are wondering how menstruation that’s taboo to discuss can be as significant as our environmental management.
Well, most of the menstrual products, including the widely used sanitary napkins are 90% plastic and there is no need to explain what a cuss plastic is for deteriorating the environment.
Menstrual Products and their Composition
Menstrual products are categorized majorly as either external (absorbs blood outside the vagina) or internal (inserted within the vagina to prevent leakage) products. The external period products include sanitary napkins, panty liners, and revolutionized period pants. For internal products, we have tampons and menstrual cups.
Further, the composition and statistics regarding these products are enlisted below that will be an eye-opener for most of you out there:
A. Sanitary napkins/pads
Due to easy availability and use, 80% of females use sanitary napkins which need to be changed every four to six hours. Its composition makes it a non-biodegradable product raising environmenstrual concerns as:
- It is made up of non-compostable plastic liners, a non-woven cover, and superabsorbent polymers.
- The top thin layer aka dry-weave full sheet is composed of polypropylene (a plastic polymer).
- Padding is mostly wood pulp combined with super-absorbent polymers.
- Leak-proof layer made up of impervious polyethylene.
- About 12.3 billion disposable sanitary pads are generated annually. They ultimately end up buried in a landfill most often after undergoing shredding.
- Each sanitary pad takes 500-800 years to decompose.
Tampons have also gained popularity among menstruating women especially those involved in sports like swimming and other athletic activities. Unlike sanitary pads, tampons are 6% plastic which is still a major concern for generating environmenstrual footprint. The portability, leakproofing, and invisibility attract about 16% of females to use tampons.
- These comprise cotton, rayon, polyester polyethylene, polypropylene, and fibre finishes. Among the composition constituents, polyester polyethylene and polypropylene are non-biodegradable.
- Tampons are further of two types one of which comes with an applicator often made up of plastic or cardboard.
- The plastic tampon applicator and the attached string are made up of polyethylene and polypropylene.
- Besides these, each tampon can be used for 6-7 hours. This eventually estimates that a woman could use 20 tampons on each period.
C. Menstrual cups
Another alternative found among period products is the menstrual cups which are quite popular by now but still used by a small percentage of women, say about 4%. Its composition makes it an eco-friendly and sustainable option among period products.
- A menstrual cup is composed of medical-grade silicone or natural rubber.
- It can be used for 4-12 hours and is reusable.
- Generally, a menstrual cup would last for 5-10 years.
D. Period Underpants
Since 2013, period pants have been another viable reusable period product that could be used to have a greener menstruation period. Its composition and usability have made it quite popular lately.
- Its manufacturing and leak-proofing layers are composed of natural fibres like cotton, bamboo, or merino wool and synthetic fibres like spandex, polyester, and nylon.
- It contains a top layer of cotton, an inner layer of super-absorbent fabric, and an outer leak-resistant layer.
- Period underpants are more sustainable than other menstrual products as they are washable and can be used for a couple of years.
Causes of Increasing Environmental Concerns
According to WEN, the disposal of single-use menstrual products – pads, tampons, and applicators generates 200,000 tonnes of waste per year. There are various reasons why different menstrual products are accumulating on the earth and degrading the air, water, or natural ecosystem quality in one way or another.
All of them need to be addressed to help improve the environment and remove the environmenstrual footprint from the Earth. These include:
1. Lack of awareness
The major reason behind making unsustainable choices among menstrual products is found to be a lack of awareness about the composition of these products. People usually don’t know that most disposable menstrual products contain hidden plastic, and harmful chemicals like traces of pesticides, and insecticides.
2. Increased demands for commercial sanitary pads
Due to a lack of awareness, women do not hesitate to buy easily available commercial sanitary pads. Each pad is loaded with around 2 grams of non-biodegradable plastic waste. This includes the upper layer, wings, adhesives, and super-absorbent gels. With its increased demand among consumers, the supply never halts, and biodegradable products, which are also available, do not reach the market at affordable prices.
3. Improper disposal and management
Due to the continued culture of silence associated with menstruation, this topic has been taboo in many parts of society. This is especially true in rural India. This restricts girls and women from accessing appropriate and safer waste management options. Once soiled period products are disposed of, they are categorized as solid waste and usually dumped into landfills.
It is a violation of SWM Rules 2016, which states, “Menstrual waste should be sent to one of the 215 large-scale common bio-medical waste incinerators that exist across the country.” Sources suggest only Pune and Bengaluru are implementing solid waste interventions to effectively segregate and identify menstrual waste during routine garbage collection.
4. Flushing the menstrual products
Besides lack of awareness, absence of bins, or disposal amenities in the toilets, and embarrassment arising from menstrual taboo encourages the flushing down option among menstruators. It leads menstrual plastic to make its way into the sewerage systems from where it reaches the seas, and eventually enters into the food chain.
It was estimated that 41% of women who choose to flush tampons do not even realize its impact on the environment.
One out of four women chooses to improperly dispose of used tampons because of period shame.
38% of women are flushing them due to a lack of disposal amenities in public toilets.
50% of women in the UK flush tampons away considering this the normal way of their disposal. Around 1.5bn-2bn menstrual items are flushed down in Britain’s toilets every year.
Facts about menstrual products degrading the environment
There are some eye-opening facts that everyone ought to know and pay heed to about menstrual products out there. These include:
- Despite being a global issue, environmenstrual management is often neglected, unaddressed, and not talked about.
- A woman uses up to 11,000 sanitary pads from menarche to menopause.
- Sanitary products are the fifth most commonly found items on European beaches, more often than single-use coffee cups, cutlery, or straws.
- Every year approximately seven billion plastic tampon applicators are disposed of.
- According to a survey, the Lanes Group reported that as many as 20 million women in the UK have flushed at least one sanitary product down the toilet in their lifetime.
- Every month, over one billion non-compostable sanitary pads make their way into the sewage system, polluting land and water in rural and urban India, reported DASRA (2017).
- Water engineer Hazem Gouda (2019) has estimated that 70,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons, and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet every day in the UK. Basically, all the buzz about menstrual products causing environmental damage revolves around the single-use plastic used in their manufacturing.
Doesn’t it scare you that all the menstrual waste that you have generated since your first period is still out there somewhere in the environment? It hasn’t left at all. The waste is present either in sewerage systems, landfills, rural fields, or water bodies. It will continue to accumulate if the correct measures are not implemented as soon as possible. You can still work on it and help your environment by taking full charge of not leaving any of your environmenstrual footprints behind from now on.
Ways to Manage Environmental Issues
Environmental concerns arising from menstrual waste can be tackled and hopefully eliminated by making a few smart choices that most of us can make on our own. A few are mentioned below which when implemented and practised can show drastic improvements within a few years.
A. Switch to plastic-free period products
Switching and trying eco-friendly menstrual products could be the biggest contribution by women to combat period plastic. Plenty of brands have started manufacturing biodegradable sanitary pads that you can choose from as per your budget and convenience. Besides biodegradable sanitary pads, there are alternatives like plastic-free cotton tampons, menstrual cups, or washable period pants that would save a lot of environmental degradation.
B. Adopt correct methods of disposal
Always dispose of the used sanitary napkins in the bins. That too in leak-proof bags that can withstand a soiled pad. Do not flush tampons, applicators, or other menstrual items as they contain super-absorbent material and are capable of clogging the sewerage systems. Also, the plastic that is flushed woven in these products is non-biodegradable, thus remaining caught up in the sewers leading to clogging or ultimately ending up in the seas.
After reaching the seas and oceans, period plastic, often as microplastic, threatens the lives of fish, birds, and other marine life since these organisms mistake it for food. This is fatal for humans as well via the consumption of seafood or tap water.
C. Spread the awareness
Lack of awareness about the amount of plastic hidden in these products is seen as a major source of period plastic and rising environmenstrual concerns. Hence, spreading awareness and proper menstrual education, both on hygienic and environmental levels is inevitable. It was evident from a 2018 study that people who have an awareness of this issue are likely to make sustainable choices while buying menstrual products that are safer for the environment.
D. Avoid plastic at the source of manufacturing
The manufacturers of organic menstrual products must be promoted and encouraged. Along with this, all the manufacturing units must reduce or avoid plastic consumption while manufacturing the products and their packing. Also, the SWM Rules 2016 must be implemented strictly so that manufacturers have to pay for the collection of the waste created by their products and hold them accountable.
E. Segregate menstrual waste followed by Installation of incinerators
Menstrual waste is segregated as sanitary waste under the solid waste category, as per SWM Rules 2016. The same mentions that menstrual waste must be incinerated in the common biomedical waste incinerator. However, WHO declares that incinerating solid waste must be done at high temperatures above 800°C.
The availability of low-cost incinerators in India which alone contributes 9000 tonnes of Sanitary waste every year burns solid waste at lower temperatures around 400-500°C. It releases toxic gases to the environment which poses environmental and health hazards.
A few more guidelines must be followed for better management of menstrual waste:
- Separate rules for menstrual waste disposal and treatment must be implemented by the government. That too as a legal framework will significantly come in handy for such a massive issue.
- Proper emission control provisions and incinerators must be installed in institutions and rural settings for disposing of menstrual waste.
- Disposal bags must be distributed along with the period products by the manufacturing companies. They must be colour-specific as it will also make segregation a bit easier.
- Government and non-government organizations must work in collaboration to spread awareness about menstrual waste management.
- Research institutions working on menstrual waste management and elimination of environmental footprint must be encouraged and supported financially.
- Allocation of proper dustbins with lids must be done in each public toilet.
- Teachers must be trained to impart knowledge and educate students about menstruation and menstrual hygiene management.
- Subsidies on eco-friendly menstrual products must be promoted so that no woman or girl is left behind from accessing the safer products.
All the girls and ladies out there, next time you go to buy menstrual protection, do not forget to reconsider the environmental footprint that it might leave. Your simple act of smart choice, sustainable use, and proper disposal can save the planet you live on. Take responsibility for making your periods plastic-free today and contribute towards eliminating environmental degradation.
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