Today, many companies claim that their sanitary napkins or baby diapers are 100% biodegradable and compostable in order to market and sell their products without fully understanding and educating their customers about what these eco-friendly terminologies “really” mean.
In this article, we will discuss what happens to a soiled sanitary pad after it is disposed of into a waste bin, where it ends up, and how long it takes for it to break down after its disposal.
Understanding The Real Problem
Before we start the discussion about how to dispose of a sanitary pad properly and how the sustainable ingredients used to make a sanitary pad play a vital role in its lifecycle, let us share our story, which started in 2017.
When we started Sparkle, our objective was to provide sustainable, affordable and effective period products to everyone.
When we were in the early stages of developing the initial prototype of our Sparkle pad, we started contacting reputed global agencies that would certify biodegradable and compostable products for further enlightenment on the topic.
We reached out to ‘Biodegradable Products Institute’, which is one of the most reputed agencies in the world that provides certification services for compostable products. We inquired about getting Sparkle pads certified as a biodegradable and compostable product.
We received the following reply from the ‘Biodegradable Products Institute’:
“We do not certify sanitary pads because compost sites will not accept them. We only certify items that are acceptable at compost facilities.”
This reply made us re-examine the fundamental problem we were trying to solve, which was developing a compostable product which may never end up at an industrial compost facility.
After carefully evaluating the current infrastructure scenario for the disposal of sanitary pad waste, we shifted our focus to developing a sanitary pad with sustainable, bio-based and natural ingredients that could easily biodegrade after disposal. We realised that rather than making a sanitary pad that could claim the tag of 100% biodegradability or compostability just for the sake of the certification, it would be better to focus on using natural ingredients that could break down quickly after its disposal, along with regular garbage.
While conventional pads contain up to 90% plastic and other petrochemical byproducts which remain unchanged in the landfill for around 600-800 years after disposal, our case isn’t the same. Sparkle pads, on the other hand, do not contain plastic or other harsh chemicals. Since these pads are made with about 97% bio-based, natural and compostable ingredients, they can break down much faster than conventional plastic pads, even in the landfill.
Sanitary Pad Waste Classification Confusion: Solid Waste Vs. Biomedical Waste
In the United States, sanitary pad waste ends up in landfills since the customary disposal system is the solid waste stream.
Even if you have a “backyard” composting pit at your home, it is not recommended to compost a soiled sanitary pad or any other products such as tampons, panty-liners or wipes that come in contact with bodily fluids. This is because homemade composting systems do not provide an adequate environment nor do they provide sufficient temperatures that kill the bacteria and the pathogens present in these discarded items. Most of the industrial compost facilities also do not accept sanitary pad wastes.
According to Indian Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, “items contaminated with blood and body fluids, including cotton, dressings, soiled plaster casts, linens and bedding, are bio-medical waste and should be incinerated, autoclaved or microwaved to destroy any pathogens.”
However, according to the Indian Solid Waste Management (SWM), soiled napkins, diapers, condoms, tampons and blood-soaked cotton, which are household waste, should be disposed of after its segregation into biodegradable and non-biodegradable nature.
Due to the lack of infrastructure for organised segregation, collection and transportation of menstrual and other sanitary waste on a large scale, in most countries, these soiled pads eventually end up in a landfill or even at places where the light, temperature and bacterial activities required for degradation may not be at ideal levels.
Current Methods For The Disposal Of Soiled Sanitary Pads In India
On average, women use around 10,000 sanitary napkins in their lifetime.
With only 1 in 6 women using pads in India, around 150,000 tons of pad waste is generated per year. If all of India’s 355 million women start using pads, it will result in approximately 1,000,000 tons of pad waste annually.
The social stigma surrounding menstruation and the lack of proper infrastructure for the collection and disposal of sanitary pad waste can lead to serious health and environmental hazards in India. Plastic and other non-biodegradable ingredients present in conventional sanitary pads make this challenge even more complicated.
In urban areas, women typically dispose of used sanitary pads in a waste bin, where they eventually end up in a landfill. In rural areas, women bury them in a pit. In public areas such as schools, offices or municipal toilets, where women may not have access to waste disposal bins, they flush the used sanitary pad in the toilet or even leave them in the corners. Since non-biodegradable sanitary pads do not decompose for a long time, they lead to the clogging of toilets, sewerage systems and drains.
Global Health Non-Profit, PATH, estimated that “over 1 billion non-compostable sanitary pads are making their way into urban sewerage systems, landfills, rural fields and water bodies in India every month.”
Recommended options for disposal of different sanitary wastes (as per MHM Guidelines 2015)
Why Is Switching To Natural And Sustainable Sanitary Pads Important?
Incinerating conventional pads that contain up to 90% plastic is not the ideal method to dispose of a sanitary pad since it releases harmful gases into the environment. Disposing of conventional plastic pads in landfills is not ideal either as they remain unchanged for around 600-800 years after disposal.
Sanitary napkins that get dumped in acres of landfills get picked up by birds and animals, which in turn leads to the pollution of land and water. Microscopic plastic particles that reach the ocean get transferred through multiple layers of the food chain, where the final result could even end up on your plate.
Until we can collectively find a better solution to this massive environmental and health obstacle caused by sanitary pad waste disposal, you can take it upon yourself to reduce plastic pollution caused by conventional pads - switch to sustainable products instead. If you throw away a soiled sanitary pad into a waste bin, you should bundle it up in a wrapper so that it is safe and hygienic for waste pickers during the garbage collection and the transfer to the landfills.
The key to arriving at a wise decision is by making wiser choices. Before purchasing a product, you should make sure that your actions make a positive difference in our environment and in the society at large. The key takeaways from this article will help you transform yourself into a smart consumer of sustainable products. Welcome to the Sparkle journey!