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Taboos around menstruation are leading to a growing environmental crisis in India

Three women sorting out garbage in Dharavi, India, in 2013. Frank Bienewald / Alamy Stock Photo

Taboos around menstruation are leading to a growing environmental crisis in India

Three women sorting out garbage in Dharavi, India, in 2013. Frank Bienewald / Alamy Stock Photo

Taboos around menstruation are leading to a growing environmental crisis in India

Three women sorting out garbage in Dharavi, India, in 2013. Frank Bienewald / Alamy Stock Photo

Taboos around menstruation are leading to a growing environmental crisis in India

Three women sorting out garbage in Dharavi, India, in 2013. Frank Bienewald / Alamy Stock Photo

Both female and male waste pickers believe that menstrual blood is a source of harm to those who are exposed to it.
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Mariana Lopez, University of Manchester

Taboos around menstruation and notions of dirt and shame are leading India’s consumers and waste pickers to contribute to a growing environmental crisis. The country is already struggling to efficiently manage all kinds of waste.

My new research has revealed that if the disposability of menstrual products is not prioritised as much as their accessibility, the country could be dealing with mountains of discarded waste products 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 for women to manage their menstruation with dignity. But the resulting waste from discarded products is a growing issue that has significant environmental consequences. This is a particularly pressing problem in countries like India that lack waste disposal infrastructure.

It is difficult to find reliable estimates on the exact quantity of menstrual waste, particularly in developing countries. This limits our understanding of the environmental impacts from these products. So for my 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 a saturation point of 100bn units, India could be dealing with 800,000 tons of menstrual waste per year. Today, this waste amounts to over 100,000 tons. But there is a significant number of women who are yet to gain access to menstrual products.

This was underlined in the latest national survey which found that only 48% of rural women and 78% of urban women used a “hygienic method of menstrual protection”. But this survey only considered women aged between 15 and 24. It is also important to note that not all people who menstruate identify as women. I only considered female consumers in my study, which shows that real numbers could be even larger.

To make matters worse, these estimates are only for waste from discarded, disposable pads. I found that women follow a wide range of other practices to dispose of these products – such as burning them, washing them (even those which are disposable) and wrapping them in plastic bags before throwing them away on the streets or into communal toilets. These practices are informed by notions of shame and dirt, which can be attributed to cultural and religious beliefs around menstruation.

Existing environmental impact assessments of menstrual products often fail to take into account local disposal practices like these. If sales in India reach 30bn menstrual products by 2030 (as expected by market growth projections), and if all these products are washed and wrapped, this would result in 1,800m tons of plastic and wastewater per year. These environmental impacts would be on top of those resulting from the disposal of the actual menstrual products themselves.

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