Not so green: The myth of the biodegradable sanitary pads

Made of corn starch, banana fibre or bamboo pulp several new niche pad brands have joined what is being called a ‘nation-wide revolution’ to do away with plastic periods.

Not so green: The myth of the biodegradable sanitary pads
Conventional pads are made up of wood pulp, a superabsorbent polymer (SAP), cotton and plastic fibers.

By Kartik Johari, 

In 2011 it was, “Kya aapke toothpaste mein namak hai?”
In 2021 it is “Kya aapke san-pad mein bamboo pulp hai?”

However, despite Lara Dutta’s best efforts, the salt in toothpaste trend kind of faded out. A cue eco-friendly pad makers might be wise to take.

Made of corn starch, banana fibre or bamboo pulp several new niche pad brands have joined what is being called a ‘nation-wide revolution’ to do away with plastic periods. ‘India has 121 million users of sanitary pads, who with their 12 billion plastic pads per year are clogging drains, blocking landfills and fueling climate change’1, our pad warriors are raging—marketing their product as the perfect fit to clean your vagina, soul and carbon footprint.

However, just like Shakespeare’s, “All that glitters is not gold”, all that’s greenwashed may not actually be green.

Here’s why.

THRUTH PILL #1: Green ingredients have a carbon footprint

Bamboo shoots seem like miracle ingredients. But what do they cost the environment to make? Hours-long, water-intensive, chemical laden extraction techniques that can be toxic to skin and effluent-heavy. Also, China is the only country that produces bamboo on a commercial scale. Often with no set standards or pesticide guidelines. Often at the cost of cute panda homes. Pads still seem 100% green?

TRUTH PILL #2: Green pads aren’t 100% compostable

Conventional pads are made up of wood pulp, a superabsorbent polymer (SAP), cotton and plastic fibers. Many biodegradable pads replace the SAP and wood pulp, but still have to retain a minor amount of plastic for waterproofing. But merely biodegradable does not mean compostable. For pads to be compostable, i.e. to be capable of disintegrating in soil in 90-180 days, the entire product needs to be made of a single ingredient so that microbes can do their thing. However, with our existing technology, that’s nearly impossible. As a result, most green pads aren’t entirely biodegradable.

TRUTH PILL #3: Composting is hard, and complicated

But a partly compostable pad is better no? you’ll say, right? Correct, provided everyone has access to a compost pit like you do. You do, don’t you?

Atleast a small patch in your backyard. No? A small square in your kitchen for peels. Also, no? What about a community compost pit? Oh, you don’t even separate your garbage. Damn.

Sarcasm apart, image a household of 3 menstruators. They’d have 78 (3 x 16per cycle) pads to compost per month. Calculate the number of pads a year and can you imagine the size their compost pit would have to be?

Fact is, all pads are equally polluting if they aren’t disposed correctly. Plastic pads if incinerated correctly or taken apart and recycled can be managed efficiently.

Take a look at this chart from a 2018 paper by WaterAid India’s Arundhati Muralidharan. The dots are telling.

TRUTH PILL #4: Numbers are falsely alarming

According to our calculations based on the Central Pollution Control Board’s 2019 report, and a report funded by the Bill and Melinda Foundation menstrual waste forms 3.27% of the annual waste generated in India (Table 3). Do you know what forms 66%? Essential-to-life substances like polybags, multilayer pouches used for food packing. As a matter of fact, one-fifth of the silt that clogs Delhi’s drains during monsoons is made up of empty gutkha and pan masala packets! And yet, we see editorials only on green pads, not green gutkha packets.

Moral: Calculations that make it seem like a barrage of pads is upon us, can be misguiding. Data always merits context and closer seeing.

TRUTH PILL #5: The real pad problem is elsewhere.

Lack of menstrual hygiene is the fifth biggest killer of women in the world, close behind heart disease, stroke, respiratory infections and COPD.

Available to less than 40% of the country (NFHS, 2016) it isn’t composition but the access of pads that we need to be panicking about. Instead of guilting women on failing to save the world even while bleeding out, we should be encouraging them to choose the option most preferable to them.

Even today, despite wigs, SAP, anti-bacterial locks, pads leak, smell, get icky. ‘Green pads’ are highly advanced and can tackle this, you say. They’re also very, very costly. (Refer table 1)

Talking of alternatives—cloth pads and cups need clean water. Running water and the privacy of functioning toilets continue to be scarce across the country. Cloth pads need to be dried in the sun—out there on laundry lines for our very liberal society to see. Cups and tampons need to be inserted. If you ever doubt the stigma that still revolves around insertion, try having a conversation with your bai about on switching.

Before I conclude, I’d like to ask: Do you know how many PET bottles India uses each year? According to my estimation (Refer Table 2), 62.4 billion, or 5.2x Arundhati Muralidharan’s estimation of the number of pads used each year. Yet, PET isn’t a problem as over 70% of these recycled into clothing, roads, etc without the involvement of users, manufacturers or even the government.

Similarly, the disposal of pads (plastic or otherwise), too, can be managed perfectly.

There exists technology that can separate out the pad into its various components and then process it. Italy based Tecnofer is just one company that is capable of this. Japan, which has technology to create electricity out of soiled diapers. In Pune, a 25-year-old engineer Ajinkya Dhariya has developed Padcare, a machine to recycle menstrual waste. While in Vadodara, nearly 6 years back innovator Shyam Sunder Bedekar invented the Ashudinashak, an eco-friendly clay incinerator that can be used to easily dispose of pads, even by rural women.

Thus, clearly, plastic is not the problem. Mindset is.

Because all pads need to be is affordable, available and easy for users to use and throw. There are many more ‘plastics’ to tackle before we come to the indispensable one in our menstruators’ panties.

(The author is Vice President, Nobel Hygiene. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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