Disposable Sanitary Napkins: A Case of Single Use Plastic?

Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay > Talking policy > Disposable Sanitary Napkins: A Case of Single Use Plastic?

DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

By Raji Ajwani-Ramchandani

Shobha Kamble starts her work at 5 AM by scavenging through the public garbage dumps in the Morwadi area of the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC). She leaves her home, located in Somatane Phata, by 4.15 AM to reach the garbage dumps before the ‘good garbage’ (recyclable items) is  taken away by other waste pickers. She sifts through the garbage dump, feeling the waste with her bare hands. On a chilly winter morning, her experienced hands quickly fish out plastic bottles and cardboard. She fills her sack and walks as fast as her feet can carry her to reach the next dumpster. Winters are better than the monsoon season, she says, because the garbage quickly begins to rot in the humid monsoon weather. It is difficult to avoid contact with soiled sanitary napkins/diapers, even if they are wrapped in newspapers, because they are wet, soggy, and tear frequently. She says that she has reached a point where touching a soiled sanitary napkin/diaper no longer affects her, as she has been doing this for ten years. The need to feed three young children and an ailing mother motivates her to go on. “Instead of spending lakhs on advertising these pads and diapers, why don’t these big companies that make these products do something to collect these dirty items, or at least provide a proper covering for them?” she asks as she moves forward trying to reach the next dumpster before the ‘good’ waste is taken away. Shobha is one among the nearly four million women rag pickers in India (Tiwari, 2018) who come in contact with soiled sanitary waste on a daily basis. 

In 2015, waste pickers from Pune and Mumbai sent several bagfuls of soiled sanitary napkins from top feminine hygiene product manufacturing companies such as Procter and Gamble, Hindustan Unilever, Johnson and Johnson, and Kimberly Clark Lever to their respective corporate offices. This was done to protest against the apparent indifference of these companies to the plight of the waste pickers (Basu, 2015), the majority of whom are women (WEIGO, 2008). Unsurprisingly, their protest received no response.

The Problem of Decomposition

In 2017 the feminine hygiene products market in India was valued at $340 million, and is predicted to reach $522 million by 2020 (Rao, 2018). Conventional disposable sanitary napkins are 90% plastic. Even the upper layer commonly referred to as the “fabric” layer is a plastic woven sheet (Chockman, 2018). If we consider the additional materials, such as packaging, plastic wings, adhesives and super absorbent gels (plastic) – each pad contains the equivalent of four plastic bags (about 2 grams of non-biodegradable plastic). It is estimated that each sanitary napkin/diaper takes between 500-800 years to decompose, and that on an average a woman could use up to 10,000 sanitary pads from menarche to menopause (Verma & Sambyal, 2018). According to a report by DASRA (2017) over one billion non-compostable sanitary pads make their way into the sewage system, and pollute land and water bodies in rural and urban India every month. However most disposable pads, especially those containing SAP don’t decompose; instead they break down into small pieces of plastic- also referred to as microplastics –  and contaminate the soil, water and air, entering the food chain in some form. 

The plastic component of a sanitary pad that contains blood and other human fluids cannot be used again. Not only is it medically unsafe to reuse, the cost of treating and recycling would render it economically unviable. According to UNEP (2018) single use plastics (also referred to as disposable plastic) include items that are intended to be used only once. The question then is, why are sanitary pads and diapers not designated as single use plastics? 

In cities, sanitary napkins are discarded along with municipal waste. This is because of a policy lacuna which categorizes sanitary waste as domestic hazardous waste instead of biomedical waste. The Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 (SWM, 2016) require manufacturers to provide a disposal pouch to facilitate the disposal of soiled disposable sanitary napkins (SDSN).  However, for many brands, the so called ‘pouch’ that is provided is too flimsy and small to hold a SDSN, and has no adhesive to seal the pouch. There may also be no markings or identification marks on this “pouch” to enable waste pickers to identify such items. 

Subsequently the sanitary waste is either incinerated, or dumped in a landfill. Sometimes it is shredded before being dumped in a landfill, which results in the creation and release of microplastics, which end up contaminating common pool resources such as air, water and soil, and make their way into the food chain. In rural areas, since there is very little, if any, organized effort towards effective waste collection and requisite disposal mechanisms, sanitary waste is often discarded by either burying or burning. 

Policy Indifference: Why Is Nothing Being Done? 

Waste pickers belong to the informal sector, which means that it is difficult to quantify the waste collected by them.  It is estimated that municipal bodies are able to collect only about 70-80% of the approximately 62 million tonnes of waste daily generated in India (Bose & Bhattacharya, 2018). Moreover, their labour is free, which makes it very convenient to maintain the status quo, at least as far as the municipal authorities are concerned. The push by government schemes such as the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (MHS, 2011) or the government of Maharashtra’s Asmita Scheme, to distribute subsidized disposable sanitary napkins actually compound the disposal issue, as these schemes are targeted to rural areas, where waste management systems are not well formalized. Incineration is another disposal option that is often touted as a viable solution. However, controlled incineration and monitoring is important to ensure that the soiled waste is disposed of in the correct manner.

How to Make the System More Efficient

There is obviously no magic wand that will provide the perfect solution. Also, which product a woman chooses to use should be entirely her prerogative, and therefore imposing draconian measures like banning disposable sanitary napkins is not a practical option. 

A few practical suggestions: 

1) Encouraging manufacturers to reduce the composition of all forms of plastic in the final product (within the pad, as well as in the individual packing, and within the larger packet in which all the pad materials are finally packed) by providing incentives as well as levying fines; 

2) Meticulously implementing SWM 2016 by making manufacturers pay for collection of the waste created by their products and holding them accountable. Emerging technologies such as the distributed ledger system can potentially be used for this purpose; 

3) Recognising the contribution of stakeholders and their initiatives that promote source level segregation and disposal 

4) Better utilization of corporate social responsibility (CSR) budget spending 

5) Improved support to start-ups, for developing alternate socio-eco-friendly products.

On March 27, 2019, the European Parliament approved a ban on a wide ranging list of single use items (Energy Industry Review, 2019) [1]. This action has come close on the heels of China’s declaration in December 2017 to stop importing plastic waste – a move that upended the USD 200 billion waste recycling industry (Parker, 2018). 

The Indian government should take a cue from such progressive policies. Diseases spread by human waste kill more people worldwide every year than any other single cause of death (George, 2008). It is time, therefore, to act before we choke on our waste – one breath and morsel at a time. 


[1]: Single-use plastic items, including straws, cotton swabs and disposable plastic plates and cutlery, to be banned by 2021.


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Image: Mumtahina Rahman from Pexels

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