Release of report ‘Why India needs to move beyond disposable sanitary pads’ on World Environment Day – 5th June, 2023

Action Research and Training for Health (ARTH) released a report named ‘Why India needs to move beyond disposable sanitary pads’ in a webinar conducted in collaboration with Population Foundation of India (PFI). The webinar was titled ‘Sustainable menstrual hygiene options’ and was organised on World Environment Day (5th June, 2023). The main purpose of this event was to increase awareness on the impact of menstrual hygiene products on the environment and how shifting to environment-friendly options like cloth pads and menstrual cups can help reduce overall menstrual waste generated. The report is based on ARTH’s experience with introducing menstrual cups in southern Rajasthan.

According to the fourth and fifth National Family Health Surveys, there has been a significant increase in the use of disposable sanitary pads. Some of the reasons for this are greater market penetration, specific brand marketing and discourse over social and mainstream media, as it is an effective option in comparison to cloth, which was more commonly used some years ago. However, commercially manufactured sanitary pads contain certain polymers in it, which make 49% of it non-biodegradable, according to the report. The report also calculated overall waste generated from use of menstrual hygiene products over a user’s lifetime and found that using conventional sanitary pads would generate 28.8kg of total waste, using conventional tampons would generate 7.2kg. In the case of menstrual cups, this waste was only 0.06kg (60 grams).

A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped flexible device made of inert medical grade silicone, which a woman needs to insert in her vagina during her period, where the cup collects menstrual blood. It can be used for 8-12 hours, depending on the woman’s flow. A menstrual cup can be used by a woman for every cycle for 5-10 years. Although silicone is 100% non-biodegradable, it does not break down and hence can be recycled/reused to make other items.

After a small formative inquiry, ARTH introduced the menstrual cup in a population of 5,50,000 consisting of rural and tribal areas and some urban wards, in July 2019. This was done via Community Health Entrepreneurs (CHEs) who sold the cups in villages while earning a small margin. Along with selling the cup they also advised women on how to use it and cleared their doubts, if any. Over 3.5 years, ARTH has been able to successfully distribute 5,695 menstrual cups (till March 2023). ARTH’s field staff also spoke to 784 women who had purchased the cup. Analysis revealed that 84.4% of women were using the cup for menstrual protection. Of the 784, 109 were adolescents who had found out about the cup from their mothers, and 83.5% of them were using the cup as well. More than half of CHEs (55% of 377) had also started to the use the menstrual cup, and further analysis revealed that those CHEs that used the menstrual cups, sold more units.

Therefore, menstrual cups are an effective and safe option for menstrual protection, provided the woman receives support during the initial months of use. It is also environment friendly as it does not break down into microplastics on decomposition unlike disposable sanitary pads, and leads to 99% reduction in total and non-biodegradable menstrual waste in comparison to sanitary pads.

One of the policy recommendations made by the authors of the report is creation of national standards for manufacture of menstrual cups. Another is to pilot menstrual cups as an option for menstrual hygiene management along with sanitary pads in government initiatives. Social marketing of these cups can also be undertaken to ensure an increase in their use.

To read the full report, click the link here