Julia Butterfly Hill is a U.S environmental activist. She is best known for having lived for 738 days in a 55 meter, 1500 year old California Redwood tree to prevent the loggers from the Pacific Lumber company from cutting it down.
In the context of this piece, Julia Butterfly hill is also known for her rousing and inspiring beliefs and powerful words on what she terms our disposability consciousness. She calls our penchant to use and throw resources that come from fossil fuel reserves and ancient forests, in other words, paper, plastic and disposable napkins, as a weapon of mass destruction.
Julia Butterfly Hill on the disposable economy
Julia also asks us a provocative question: What is away? When we throw things “away” where is away?
In the question of disposable sanitary products and diapers, it is important to ask, who is away? And when we imagine away, who do we imagine is clearing our trash for us?
Last year, after repeated pleas and emails to companies manufacturing sanitary napkins were ignored, SWACH Pune and Stree Mukti Sanghatana from Mumbai took a drastic step. They collected and sent bags of soiled sanitary napkins to the corporate offices of Johnson & Johnson, Hindustan Unilever, Kimberly Clark and Proctor & Gamble – they wanted these companies to understand what it is like for waste pickers to hand pick and collect this waste by hand.
And this is a reality that happens every day across Indian cities.
Waste pickers handle our soiled disposable napkins, which are rarely marked separately and are often mixed with food and recyclable waste. They separate out soiled napkins from useful items by hand, exposing themselves to micro-organisms like E.Coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, HIV and pathogens that cause hepatitis and tetanus.
Because of the hazardous nature of their job, waste pickers can cut themselves when handling broken glass and sharp pieces of metal in the waste. Open, cut skin when exposed to blood soiled napkins or urine soaked diapers can present a very grave health hazard.
The Plastic Waste Management rules formulated by the MOEF in 2011, has included basic provisions asking for extended Producer responsibility when it comes to disposal of products. Producers of goods are responsible for the entire cycle of their products from cradle to grave, and need to provide solutions to help organise waste generated from the use of their products.
We have a conversation with Pratibha of Swach today to understand more.
How SWACH began:
SWACH is India’s first co-operative formed by waste collectors from low income backgrounds. In 1993, waste pickers and waste buyers in Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad came together to form KKPKP (Kaghad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat) a membership based trade union.
The Union was started to improve and establish the important role played by waste pickers in solid waste management and to assert through dialogue, their contribution to the environment. Today KKPKP has 9000 members of which many are from social and marginalised castes.
Each member pays an annual fee to the organisation and an equal amount towards their life insurance cover. Members are given ID cards endorsed by the Pune Municipal Corporation, and have access to benefits like interest free loans and educational support for their children.
KKPKP has done stellar work in helping establish the role of its members in Solid Waste Management. Their study helped quantify the waste picker’s contribution to solid waste management and demonstrated how the recyclable recovery operations carried by their members helped save Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation several crores of rupees in waste handling costs.
In 2005, KKPKP launched a pilot programme in conjunction with PMC, which integrated its waste picker members in door to door waste collection work. This pilot programme paved the way for the genesis of Swach – a wholly owned worker’s co-operative which followed a pro-poor Public Private partnership.
Swach began work in 2006 and became fully operational in 2008. The work under Swach includes door to door waste collection services. Swach Plus is another arm of the venture which includes value added components that help boost income like e-waste collection, composting services, and products like ST dispo bags which we will talk about.
“We hate reaching into a trash bag and encountering a used diaper or a soiled sanitary napkin”…
When people throw napkins into their domestic waste they don’t stop to think that another human being is sorting through all this waste to remove their recyclables. So they wrap the napkins in any old polythene bag, or don’t wrap it all. Some people wrap the napkins in newspaper, but often this opens up and the dirty napkin is exposed. Yes, we are waste pickers, but there are some things we would not like to touch.’
Another waste picker and Swach member, Shobha Bansode says that she puts plastic bags on her hands when she has to handle sanitary napkins. “That’s the only way I can handle this waste.” She says.
Rajendra Kamble, a Swach member says, “There never has been a uniform method of disposal of these pads. Some people wrap it in paper, some put it in a plastic bag and some just throw it, without putting it in anything. But even if one did wrap it, we had to take it out of the wrapping – the paper or plastic, as the municipal wet garbage truck does not even let one small piece of paper and plastic into it. So at the end of the day, we still have to handle your used napkins no matter how you wrap it.”
In order to prevent waste pickers from direct handling of sanitary pads, Swach members started manufacturing Sanitary Towel Dispo Bags. These bags are made out of old newspapers by the waste pickers of Swach. The bags are minimally priced at Rs. 1 and are made available to citizens, bulk buyers include IT companies, Women’s hostels and our members also provide it as per the request on helpline or as part of their door to door collection. By using these environment friendly bags, citizens not only help in preserving the health and dignity of several waste workers but also contribute to their livelihood.
When our waste pickers see this bag, they know not to open it and keep it aside while sorting through the trash they collect.
We were proud to have been featured on Satyameva Jayate in their episode on solid waste management.
We have been working for 6 years on the problem of appropriate disposal of disposable menstrual pads and diapers.
What began as an effort to avoid direct handling of this waste by waste pickers has over time evolved into a complete campaign to ensure manufacturing companies fulfil their duties under EPR (Extended Producer’s Responsibility) guidelines as included in the Plastic Waste Management Rules.
Swach has taken the first steps in beginning a dialogue with manufacturers and the local government about appropriate disposal of STs, keeping in mind the occupational health issues of waste pickers, and in the light of the EPR. Efforts are also being made at an individual level through the Swach members to convince citizens to use the ST Dispo bags.
We have also been organizing awareness sessions at societies where waste pickers are given a forum to convey to other urban women, how they feel about having to handle soiled napkins, often with their bare hands. Such face-to-face conversations have helped in bringing home the issue and have resulted in genuine change in few societies.
While there is a section of women who have shown a certain resistance in spending that extra bit towards disposal of sanitary pads, many women have shown interest in the issue and have taken up the cause by promoting these bags in societies and encouraging their friends. Also, there are various aspects of ST Dispo Bags, which attracts citizens- besides addressing the health and handling issue of waste workers, some women feel it is quite handy and easy to carry in handbags for safer disposal; some are attracted by the fact that is made from recycled paper.
Our engagement efforts with manufacturers of disposable sanitary products have met with less success.
We estimate that more than 4 Lakh Sanitary napkins are used in a city like Pune per menstrual cycle (i.e. every month). This we think is a conservative estimate. The figure could go upto 15 lakh disposable menstrual products every month.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests has notified the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 on 4th February, 2011. As per these Rules, in line with the principle of Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR), the municipal authority may ask the manufacturers, either collectively or individually to provide the required finance to establish the plastic waste collection centres. The producers are required to finance, and organize a system for environmentally sound management of waste generated from their products. The concept of EPR has been adopted as being practised in various countries, requiring the producers to take responsibility for the end of life of their products and to ensure that the waste from such products is channelized for safe handling.
For the last three years, as per the Extended Producer Responsibility, and/or CSR, we have been politely asking manufacturers to take more responsibility towards its post consumer waste. We know that disposable sanitary napkins are being promoted as a healthy option to young women (who might otherwise drop out of school after onset of menstruation). We are also sensitive towards our women members. Both KKPKP and Swach cooperative are both women centric organizations with an 80%+ female membership. The coop is particularly concerned about the health and dignity of women who handle and have to deal with this particularly degrading post consumer waste.
We also approached the Pune Municipal Corporation to help with this problem. They took a keen interest in the health of our members. They called for a consultation of elected representatives, active citizens groups and various manufacturing companies but they failed to attend this important meeting.
Since the responses from companies were so unsatisfactory, we had to take an aggressive step and on the occasion of international women’s day – March 8th, 2013, we launched our campaign “Send it Back”. A small package of used napkins was sent to the head offices of leading Sanitary Napkin manufacturing companies in India, to make them experience how insulting and revolting it is for waste pickers to handle this waste on a daily basis. The idea was to gauge the urgency of this issue and the need of implementing a mechanism for safer handling of sanitary napkins.
The campaign caught attention and responding to the packages sent to them, a meeting was called in April 2013, by Feminine and Infant Health Association (FIHA) at Pune Municipal Corporation Office to discuss the matter with Joint Commissioner and Swach/KKPKP representatives. They said they require at least 90 days to come up with an action plan. We have still not heard back from them.
But also, more importantly, once we sort through the trash piles, we need to know how to further dispose used and soiled sanitary napkins and disposable diapers. Manufacturers till date have given us no answer to the question “does a sanitary napkin or diaper go into organic waste or recyclable waste or do we put into another category of waste? How should we deal with this waste? “
We also started building public awareness on this issue. Some people’s representatives and Mohalla committees – the citizen’s group have also extended their support and had sent letters to the companies demanding accountability.
Krya’s point of view on this:
While Swach’s initiative to make the disposal of used napkins and diapers more sanitary for their members is certainly laudable, we at Krya feel that this is a stop gap solution. A sanitary napkin wrapped in an ST dispo bag will still reach your landfill, although this time other people would not have had to handle it with their bare hands, in the landfill it will degrade slowly leaching blood, pathogens, and the chemical additives that make up its construction.
And of course appropriate disposal methods still do not address the several grave health concerns that disposable products present. Read more about these here and here.
It is also a telling comment that manufacturers have been unable to answer Swach’s very pertinent query on what category of waste soiled disposable sanitary napkins and disposable diapers. We are all aware that they are neither organic waste nor recyclable waste, although the blood, pee and poop that goes into them is organic, and the materials they are made up of (plastic and wood pulp) are in theory recyclable.
But the lethal combination of mixing organic material into highly processed and specialised material made from fossil fuel renders a used disposable product like a diaper and sanitary napkin completely un-recoverable. The highly specialised SAAP in diapers and napkins cannot be safely retrieved, cleaned well of organic matter and then reused for another purpose at an efficient cost. This is why corporations are investing in incinerators which are the only way to dispose this material – burn it. Incinerating this material comes with added complications of health and air pollution.
Citizens living near landfills like Kodangaiyur and Perungudi, routinely lead demonstrations and protests every time the landfills run the incinerators. They complain of lethal smoke and soot that leave them filling ill. This makes sense given the many weird additives, dioxins and fragrances that go into disposable products.
We believe the true solution will emerge when menstrual waste does not leave your home and is handled by me and you, ourselves. This becomes possible only if we all give adopting reusable menstrual products a serious thought.
We would like to thank Malti, Aparna and Pratibha of the Swach team who kindly consented to or interview and helped us with their important perspective of disposable products from a solid waste management and human dignity.
The Swach team does amazing work in Pune. Please support their work by “liking” their Facebook page, and reading more about their work and services here. There are opportunities for volunteering with Swach and contributing both your time and money to their work. If you are interested in exploring this please contact Aparna or Pratibha at Swach co-op via email.
The photos on this page of Swach’s work is courtesy Swach Co-op, Pune.
But perhaps the best way to contribute to their work and be the solution, would be to consider adopting reusables. If you would like to know more about the problems of disposables, start here:
- Here’s an introduction to the world of reusables
- Here’s where you can find out more about the dangers presented by disposable sanitary products
- Here’s a piece chronicling a Man’s perspective on Reusables and Disposable products
- And here’s the first part of our Interview series: this is an interview of Lakshmi Murthy of Uger Pads, Udaipur
- Here’s Anita chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads.
- Here’s the second part of our interview series: this is an interview of Kathy & Jessamijn of Eco Femme, Auroville
- Here’s Susmitha chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads.
We are going to be giving away 3 cloth sanitary pad starter kits to 3 lucky people: each kit will come in its own reusable cloth bag (for you to shop with) and will contain samples of the Krya detergent along with instructions to wash and care for your cloth pads.
If you would like to win one of these starter kits, all you need to do is this. Follow our posts and updates in this series and tell us one reason why you would like to make the switch to green your period. Head over to our Facebook page to enter now.