Menstrual Hygiene Day: Chennai sanitation workers bear brunt of improperly disposed pads

Kannimozhi is a sanitation worker at a swish apartment complex in Egmore, the heart of Chennai. One of the items she regularly comes into contact with, during the course of her work, are unwrapped sanitary napkins, disposed by the residents of the complex. Kannimozhi and her three colleagues work without gloves or any other protection, collecting unsegregated waste with their bare hands.

“The apartment management has made it mandatory for us to wear an overcoat but haven't given us gloves,” Kannimozhi said, dumping the collected waste into a nearby Corporation dustbin. She is just one of the thousands who come in contact with such mindlessly discarded waste — proving that awareness regarding menstrual hygiene and sanitation needs to be radically improved in India.

Addressing menstrual waste disposal

It is imperative to address issues such as menstrual hygiene and sanitation in light of the associated health and environmental hazards. Menstrual Hygiene Day, observed on 28 May, is dedicated to raising concerns regarding menstrual sanitation and hygiene.

But while menstruation itself continues to be a taboo subject, unhygienic use and disposal of sanitary pads — especially in metropolitan cities like Chennai — is slowly exacting a toll on not only the environment but also human lives.

 Menstrual Hygiene Day: Chennai sanitation workers bear brunt of improperly disposed pads

while menstruation itself continues to be a taboo subject, unhygienic disposal of sanitary pads is slowly exacting a toll on not only the environment but also human lives. Wikimedia Commons/File Photo

According to 2019 data available with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India, 121 million women in the country use sanitary napkins; that's one billion pads per month, 12 billion a year. Items such as sanitary napkins are classified under non-compostable waste; it takes a maximum of 800 years for a single pad to decompose. Chennai Corporation data states that 5,400 metric tonnes of waste is collected (annually) from residential areas — including sanitary waste such as menstrual pads and diapers.

Incorrect disposal adds to the problem, with sanitary napkins dumped — unsegregated — along with other waste, or flushed down the toilet, resulting in choked sewage lines. In either case, it is sanitation workers who must face the consequences.

Plight of sanitation workers

In Pulianthope, Chennai, members of around 1,900 Dalit families hold jobs as sanitation workers associated with private or government institutions. These workers are responsible for cleaning sewage lines, collecting waste from Corporation bins and segregating it.

GR Raghavan, a sanitation worker since 1982, has contracted severe respiratory problems. He is also plagued by a persistent cough and other physical ailments. His workdays spanned nine-hour shifts, lasting from 8 am to 5 pm, all for Rs 800 a day. Sewage workers like Raghavan were given little to no protection gear by the authorities; he says clearing out foul-smelling sewage lines, blocked by sanitary napkins, has led to skin conditions.

“My weight has reduced from 80 kg to 50 kg, and I have acquired various skin diseases while trying to clean blocked
sewage lines,” Raghavan said.

Among the women, there is reluctance to use cloth pads. Parvathy, a resident and member of the locality's self-help group group in the locality, said, of the preference for store-bought sanitary napkins: “If we use cloth pads, we need to dry them out in the sun so that it is clean for the next use. However, there is still some kind of shame associated with periods, so some of us women are embarrassed to dry it in public view.”

Hazards of improper disposal

Even as pads flushed in toilets block the sewage lines, the chlorine bleach — used to whiten the wood pulp in sanitary napkins for aesthetic reasons — is an environmental and health hazard, releasing toxic chemicals as a
by-product of the bleaching process.

At every stage of manufacturing and use, disposable products like diapers and sanitary napkins lead to wastage of resources like crude oil and trees, while also contaminating water and the atmosphere with dangerous chemicals, before ending up in a landfill since there is no option to dispose them in a safe manner.

Vijayakumar, a social activist based in Chennai, has been working on this issue and has conducted various awareness camps for the same. “Pads cannot be burned or buried. If they are burned then the chemicals along with the plastic can emit hazardous gases into the environment. But they cannot be buried either as the blood might percolate down the soil, resulting in soil and land pollution," he explained.

Waste disposal under the law

On 8 April 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a Gazette Notice implementing the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 which state that:

(1) All manufacturers of disposable products such as tin, glass, plastics packaging, etc., or brand owners who introduce such products in the market shall provide necessary financial assistance to local authorities for establishment of waste management system.

(2) All such brand owners who sell or market their products in such packaging material which are non-biodegradable shall put in place a system to collect back the packaging waste generated due to their production.

(3) Manufacturers or brand owners or marketing companies of sanitary napkins and diapers shall explore the possibility of using all recyclable materials in their products or they shall provide a pouch or wrapper for disposal of each napkin or diapers along with the packet of their sanitary products.

(4) All such manufacturers, brand owners or marketing companies shall educate the masses for wrapping and disposal of their products.

However, no leading sanitary napkin brands in India provide an additional pouch for disposal or raise awareness about correct disposal. The limited number of incinerators also makes it hard to dispose off the pads in a safe way.

A return to cloth?

Indian women have long used cloth pads during menstruation. However, modern-day society largely relies on commercially available sanitary napkins. While the awareness about menstrual hygiene is slowly rising, several female activists are working to bring cloth pads back and educate the masses regarding the same.

Kavya Menon, an activist who is part of AWARE (an educational initiative for sustainable menstruation through use of cloth pads) said, “Plastic sanitary pads pose a grave danger not only when not disposed properly, but can give rise to health issues in women as the chemical substance used as bleaching on pads can cause cancer as it comes in contact with women’s private parts, while the fragrances used can cause infertility.”

Kavya suggests the use of cloth pads that can be reused without affecting one’s health. While many brands now retail cloth pads, at a glance, these seem to be higher priced, making it economically non-viable for women from lower income groups.

However, in the case of sanitary napkins, a woman uses an average of 20 pads in a five-day cycle (while using four pads a day). If each pad is priced at Rs 5, the cost comes up to Rs 100 per month. In a year, she may spend up to Rs 1,200 for sanitary napkins.

Cloth pads, on the other hand, priced at Rs 2,400 for a set of eight, can be reused for up to five years.

Economically and in terms of disposal, maybe a switch to cloth pads can show the way forward for sustainable menstruation.

Anusha Sundar is a (photo)journalist with an eye for environmental, cultural and human-centric stories. Follow her work on Instagram.

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Updated Date: May 29, 2019 09:58:12 IST