Taboos around menstruation and notions of filth and shame are driving consumers and waste pickers in India to contribute to a growing environmental crisis. The country is already in trouble to efficiently manage all kinds of waste.
My new to research revealed that if the disposal of menstrual products is not as high a priority as their accessibility, the country could be faced with mountains of waste discarded in less than 50 years.
Menstrual products (which include tampons and synthetic pads) are often championed by manufacturers, NGOs and Governments as the only alternative so that women can manage their period with dignity. But the waste resulting from discarded products is a growing problem with significant environmental consequences. This is a particularly pressing problem in countries like India which lack waste disposal infrastructure.
It is difficult to find reliable estimates on the exact amount of menstrual waste, especially in developing countries. This limits our understanding of the environmental impacts of these products. So for my to research, I drew on market data and population growth estimates to conduct an analysis of the potential growth of menstrual waste in India.
My estimates show that by 2070, when sales are expected to reach saturation point of 100 billion units, India could process 800,000 tonnes of menstrual waste per year. Today, this waste amounts to more than 100,000 tonnes. But there are a significant number of women who do not yet have access to menstrual products.
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This was emphasized in the latest national survey who found that only 48% of rural women and 78% of urban women used a “hygienic method of menstrual protection”. But this survey only took into account women aged 15 to 24. It’s also important to note that not all people who have their period identify as women. I only considered female consumers in my study, which shows that the real numbers could be even larger.
To make matters worse, these estimates only relate to the waste of discarded disposable towels. I’ve found that women follow a wide range of other practices to get rid of these products – like burning them, washing them (even disposable ones), and wrapping them in plastic bags before throwing them on the street. or in the shared toilets. These practices are informed by notions of shame and filth, which can be attributed to cultural and religious beliefs around menstruation.
Existing environmental impact assessments of menstrual products often do not take into account local disposal practices like these. If sales in India reach 30 billion menstrual products by 2030 (as predicted by market growth projections), and if all these products were washed and packaged, it would result in 1,800 million tonnes of plastic and wastewater per year. These environmental impacts would be in addition to those resulting from the disposal of the menstrual products themselves.
The role of waste pickers
There is another, more human aspect to the waste problem in India. My results show that garbage pickers can actually contribute to environmental problems because of the practices they follow, which are often influenced by notions of shame and filth.
Both female and male waste pickers believe that menstrual blood is a source of harm to those exposed to it. In addition, they share the view that menstrual waste is “female waste” and should only be handled by women. To use the words of a garbage collector I interviewed:
Males feel disgusted if they see this. The ladies don’t feel so bad about it.
These perceptions prevent many waste pickers from collecting and separating menstrual products. Instead, they tend to throw menstrual waste into open areas like construction sites or burn it. This increases the likelihood that this waste will not be properly destroyed. In the words of a waste picker: “If we throw [this waste] in [a] place where no one lives, there will be no pollution.
Additionally, negative perceptions around this type of work and caste can compound the challenges that waste pickers face when it comes to managing this specific waste. In India, around 95% of waste pickers are from the lower caste of Hinduism. system.
These social norms can prevent waste pickers from feeling unable to ask consumers to separate menstrual waste. They also translate into a reluctance of consumers to respond to their demands. Another garbage collector told me that they should take whatever their customers give them, no questions asked. She added:
If I told them [to segregate this waste] so they would tell you [are] stupid, you pick up the trash and you take the money.
My research indicates that a few simple steps could make a big difference. Here are some of the recommendations I made for policymakers:
Integrate disposal information into all menstrual hygiene management programs, including proper management in different settings (including schools, homes, and public spaces).
Collect data on the use of menstrual products to estimate the volume of waste and design appropriate processes to manage it.
Invest in the development of waste management systems that reduce the amount of menstrual waste that goes to landfills, such as energy recovery incinerators.
Collaborate with NGOs to train waste pickers in menstrual waste management.
Taboos around menstruation must be removed to bring about a change in disposal and waste management practices and prevent the already dire environmental situation from getting worse.
While a number of countries, including India, are putting in place policies to improve menstrual hygiene management, how these products are actually disposed of has been largely ignored. That must change now.