Menstrual waste management is a critical issue in India due to the large population of menstruating individuals and the lack of infrastructure to manage this waste effectively. Menstruation is still stigmatized in many parts of India, and there is a lack of awareness and education about menstrual hygiene and the safe disposal of menstrual waste. According to NFHS-5 (2019-21), 78% of adolescent girls use a hygienic method of protection during their menstrual cycle. This increased usage of menstrual products also requires efficient and sustainable waste management practices. This lack of access can lead to poor menstrual hygiene practices, such as using unclean or unsafe materials to manage menstruation, which can increase the risk of infection and other health problems.
The stigma surrounding menstruation can lead to improper disposal of menstrual waste, such as throwing used pads in open dumps or water bodies. This not only pollutes the environment but also poses serious health risks for sanitation workers who handle the waste. The Indian government has taken steps to address this issue, including launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) in 2014, which includes a focus on improving menstrual hygiene management. In 2018, the government also introduced a 12% GST on sanitary pads, which was widely criticized for making menstrual hygiene products more expensive and inaccessible for low-income individuals. However, later menstrual products were exempted bringing much-needed relief.
Despite these efforts, menstrual waste management remains a significant challenge in India. According to a study, 12.3 billion sanitary napkins, amounting to 113,000 tonnes of waste end up in landfills. The study also found that there is a lack of awareness and education around menstrual waste management, with many individuals unaware of the health and environmental risks associated with improper disposal. The nature of menstrual waste also makes it difficult to manage and treat. The social and physical aspects of menstrual waste with deep-rooted cultural beliefs and the non-decomposable nature of sanitary napkins make interventions challenging. Most sanitary pads are made with Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP), non-biodegradable plastic, glue etc which may take 500-800 years to decompose. When large quantities of such products are not managed properly, can cause long-term harm to water and soil quality. Blood-soiled menstrual absorbents are the best medium for disease-causing pathogens. Hence, if disposed of untreated into the environment there is a risk of building a reservoir of pathogens. Therefore, better access to menstrual products is crucial to female health but the absence of safe management of menstrual waste will be detrimental to overall hygiene and environmental health.
Addressing the Challenge
The challenge of menstrual waste management needs to be addressed at two levels. One is the infrastructure level with physical interventions designed to cater to the waste produced and the other is at the individual behavioural level where not only access to menstrual products is promoted but sustainable waste disposal techniques are also encouraged. To address both elements an understanding of the different types of menstrual products and potential solutions for waste management needs to be studied along with some international best practices. To identify menstrual waste management solutions, it is imperative to understand the type of menstrual hygiene products used and the implications for waste management. The Solid Waste Rules (2016) consider menstrual waste as solid waste and define it as Sanitary Waste Rules specify the responsibilities of the waste generator, local authorities and gram panchayats and producers of sanitary products.
Physical interventions like incineration involve the burning of menstrual waste at high temperatures, usually above 800°C, to convert it into ash, gas, and heat. The ash residue can then be disposed of safely in a landfill or used as a soil conditioner, while the heat and gas generated can be used for energy recovery. Biomedical Waste Management Rules (2016) provide guidelines for the deep burial of biomedical waste that can be adapted for menstrual waste. An adapted protocol for deep burial has been developed by NEERI and Menstrual Health Alliance India. However, such interventions remain restricted due to sectoral silos in the absence of coherent national, state or city-level policies.
A coherent policy-level intervention at all three tiers of governance becomes important to address the infrastructural and behavioural issues. Some of these interventions can be
- The guidelines at National Level under the Bio-medical Waste Management Rules, 2016 need to be expanded to specifically cater to menstrual waste. Considering the increased awareness and access to menstrual products it becomes crucial that our guidelines are in place to deal with increased volumes of menstrual waste efficiently and safely.
- Education and Awareness generation at the State Level. With the scale and nature of menstrual waste, the education and awareness campaign is based on the menstrual waste management framework adopted at the State level. This will enable the state and local authorities to nudge women and girls not only to adopt better menstrual hygiene practices but also to be sustainable in nature. The Swachh Bharat Mission campaign could be expanded to include the call for better menstrual waste management techniques like separate menstrual bins for safe disposal and prevent mixing with other household waste.
- Sanitary Waste Management Framework (District) The sanitary waste management framework at the district level can enable a decentralised model of waste management based on local context and geographical conditions to design a solution catering to the local context. This could further be integrated into a capacity-building workshop with all relevant stakeholders. At the same time designing a workflow to collect, store and transport the waste from community/common collection centres to the treatment facility.
- Village-level Management practices also become important with increasing access to sanitary products. The dumping of used sanitary napkins in open fields could result in contamination of water systems and soil. At the village, such practices would require a more sensitive decentralised approach due to smaller waste generation and prevalent social taboos in handling such kind of waste. A case for more affordable multi-use hygiene products like menstrual cups, washable sanitary napkins etc can be made for a decentralised sustainable practice.
Therefore, one has seen how menstrual waste is not just linked to any other type of waste but rather holds significant social, environmental and administrative challenges due to its unique nature and complicated treatment processes. A multi-stakeholder approach becomes crucial for all the relevant stakeholders (District level administration, Public Authorities, Residents, National Government, CSOs etc) to pitch in while ensuring that not only aspect of improved access but better management of menstrual products is undertaken to have an inclusive Zero Waste approach to Menstrual Waste Management.