Aunt Flo, Chums, Time, That time of the month, “Dhooram” (in Tamil) : these are just some of the veiled terms used to describe a woman’s period.
Our monthly cycle is so taboo that we can’t even bring ourselves to refer to it by name. And it is in this veil of secrecy, that an ecosystem of products have grown to help us “cope” with our monthly friend.
The sanitary napkin industry started out in 1895, but it began coming into its own after the First World War After the war, spurred by the excess capacity of cloth and gauze bandages available, a whole new industry started a range of products to help women absorb their menstrual flow.
Unlike what the manufacturers of sanitary napkins would have you believe, this is not the first time a sanitary napkin was “invented”.
The Museum of Menstruation, started by Department of Defence worker, Harry Finley is listed as one of the 10 most unique museums in the world. Mr. Finley’s collection of artefacts range from 18th century Norwegian handmade cloth sanitary pads, to research papers on what ancient Egyptian women used to collect their menstrual flow at their time of the month.
Egyptologists surmise that ancient Egyptian women used a cotton and flax tampon like device to absorb menstrual flow. Donations to MUM’s archives show 18th and 19th century pattern books which give its readers different patterns and cuts to sew your own sanitary napkin.
So sanitary napkins and products are not new. But what changed once manufacturers jumped into the fray was what they began to be made from.
The first napkins were made from cotton and gauze. But as availability of these materials shrank after the wars, there was a need to find a low cost, easily available material to absorb menstrual flow.
Wood pulp was chosen as an absorption medium. Wood pulp is sourced from mature trees and is manufactured from the cellulose found in tree bark. Wood pulp comes from softwood trees like spruce, pine, fir, larch and hemlock and hardwood trees like eucalyptus, aspen and birch.
The plastics revolution has further changed the very nature of disposable sanitary napkins. Now apart from bleached pulp or rayon from wood cellulose, a sanitary napkin also contains a super absorbent acrylic polymer (SAAP), with a waterproof backing made up of LDPE or polyethylene (PE) film, and the stay dry outer cover is made up of polypropylene (PP) non woven material.
This then is the chief difference between sanitary products created by women for themselves and used throughout history and what is available today.
Today’s sanitary napkin is a child of the fossil fuel industry and is almost entirely derived from plastic. A very small part of the sanitary napkin is natural, which is the part derived from wood pulp.
But this part is derived from forestry sources. Apart from using up potential carbon sinks and oxygen creators for using pulp, the wood pulp industry has been accused in many countries of not having responsible forest managed. Even in cases where the pulp is sourced from responsibly managed forests, wood harvesting reduces the natural forest biodiversity.
And to absorb our monthly menstrual fluid, we have elected to use up pulp from old mature trees, which act as a carbon sink keeping global warming at bay. Today’s sanitary napkin has an extremely large carbon and environmental footprint.
Here are 5 reasons why you should consider switching out of disposable sanitary napkins and look at greening your period:
- Impact on forests: 12 trees produce roughly 1 tonne of wood pulp which can be used from applications like making toilet paper rolls and writing paper to sanitary napkins. A non gel napkin uses roughly 10 gm of wood pulp per napkin. A menstruating woman in India consumes about 5000 napkins in her reproductive years. Which means that every woman using non gel, wood pulp based napkins is responsible for decimating nearly 1 tree in her menstruating life time.
- Fossil fuel footprint of conventional napkins: The super absorbent polyacrylate gel layer, the stay dry non woven PP layer and the LDPE backing sheet are all plastic derivatives which are in turn petrochemical derivatives. In fact research indicates that the amount of plastic found in one disposable sanitary napkin is the equivalent of 4 carry bags.
- Presence of harmful chemicals in commercial synthetic pads: Dioxins, rayon, artificial fragrances and odour neutralisers, are just some of the toxins you would encounter every month in your pads.Naturally harvested cotton is a creamy white colour. But in order to give your pads and tampons that “pristine” white look, these cotton fibres must be bleached. The by product of this process is dioxins like trihalomethane which can give off gas from your napkins and be absorbed by your body. Once absorbed, dioxin is stored by your fatty tissue. The US EPA classifies dioxin as a serious public health threat and further states that there is no safe dose of dioxin. Published research reports show that even low or trace amounts of dioxin may be linked to abnormal tissue growth in the abdomen and reproductive organs, abnormal cell growth throughout the body, immune system suppression and hormonal and endocrine system disruption. The odour neutralisers, fragrances and dyes in the release paper and adhesives add to this toxic soup of ingredients that should not be worn so intimately with your body – and definitely not before a huge battery of tests conclusively rules out both short and long term damage and ill effects.
- Soil health and solid waste management issues: As there is no safe mechanism to dispose a used disposable sanitary napkin, they are usually dumped in the nearest landfill. This toxic concoction of menstrual blood, wood pulp, plastic, dioxin and fragrance is left to sit on the land where it slowly degrades polluting the soil and the water reservoirs below. Blood matter can carry with it viruses, and bacteria like E Coli, salmonella, etc which can continue to linger on for many days after the pad has been thrown away. Any contact with this can help spread infections or disease.
- Human dignity and conservancy workers: This is a problem unique to India, where despite the Supreme Court directive, manual scavenging continues to exist. Many of us living in cities, would have seen conservancy workers diving into clogged sewer drains when machines cannot do the job and unclogging the drains by hand. Disposable sanitary napkins affect conservancy workers in 2 ways:
- No disposal mechanism in place: With the lack of proper disposal mechanisms in place, and no widespread efforts on the part of companies to educate consumers about how pads should be disposed after use, many Indian consumers continue to flush used sanitary napkins or throw then into drains. As these products travel downstream along the sewage line, the SAAP gel in them continues to absorb external sewage fluid and expands until it balloons out and manually blocks the sewage pipes. At this point manual intervention is needed to unblock the pipes
- No facility to separately mark and dispose used napkins: If used napkins are not flushed or thrown into drains, they are routinely mixed up with household waste, compostable waste and recyclable waste and thrown out. In an effort to segregate recyclable waste, conservancy workers and rag pickers end up manually handling bloody, used sanitary napkins at great danger to their health and great danger to their dignity.
So what is my option, you would do well to ask? The next part of our series describes sustainable sanitary options and interviews 3 interesting teams who are creating a quiet hygiene revolution across India.
Thank you Mr.Harry Finley of Mum.org, for kindly giving us permission to use some of your archived material from your wonderful and culturally significant Museum of Menstruation. You could see some of Mr.Finely’s carefully archived work on the history of menstruation at www.mum.org .