Long-lasting, comfortable, stain-free, and affordable are the thoughts that come to every woman's mind when she picks up a disposable sanitary napkin.
What doesn't occur to most women is that over a billion of these non-compostable sanitary pads are making their way into sewerage systems, landfills, fields, and water bodies in India every month, posing huge environmental and health risks.
With taboos and superstitions galore about menstruating women in India, safe technologies and interventions to dispose and treat menstrual waste have become a huge challenge.
Though the Indian government is ensuring that all women and girls, especially in rural pockets, have easy access to sanitary napkins, the need of the hour is to give "more attention" to managing menstrual waste, which is estimated to be 113,000 tonnes annually.
According to Shradha Shreejaya, an active campaigner in Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective, a Kerala-based NGO that promotes bio-degradable and toxin-free sanitary products, "India has been very messy about dealing with its sanitary waste..."
"We have found ignorance regarding the raw materials used in making most sanitary products that are falsely assumed to be only cotton and plastic -- the products are more than 90 percent plastic with superabsorbent polymers and non-woven plastic components that make it extremely difficult to dispose off in a backyard shortcut way," Shreejaya, who is also a supporter of EcoFemme which manufactures and promotes reusable cloth pads, said.
According to a survey, about 336 million girls and women experience menstruation in India, which means that approximately 121 million of them are using disposable sanitary napkins.
Most women in big cities and towns go for commercial disposable sanitary napkins (DSN) not knowing that some of these products pose health hazards due to its chemical cocktail content (dioxin, furan, pesticides and other endocrine disruptors), said experts.
With no knowledge of how to dispose them off, most women just throw them in the garbage bin which usually gets mixed up with dry, wet and hazardous waste.
Apart from the fact that it cannot be recycled, the exposed sanitary napkin poses grave health risks for the waste collector.
The problem does not end here. The plastic layer which is used to make it stain-free and the chemicals used in producing it get further transferred between soil, water, and air, experts added.
Most women and girls in rural India use cloth, which if not dried in proper sunlight for reuse could lead to further health complications. In fact, many women in rural India tend to throw them in open spaces, like rivers, wells, and even roadsides as they don't have access to safe options.
Activists are advocating to use reusable eco-friendly sanitary pads, including cloth pads, biodegradable pads, and cups. According to Manish Malani, co-founder of She Cups, they came to know about menstrual cups when they were looking for economical diagnostic kits for cervical cancer patients.
"Good menstrual hygiene practices keep the body healthy thereby less vulnerable to infections/diseases."