Global Development Institute Blog

Rising disposable income, intensive product marketing and NGO encouragement has seen more women in India adopting modern pads and tampons instead of traditional menstrual management methods. But this has resulted in adverse effects on environment and waste management systems, currently reaching 100,000 tons of waste per year, according to new research by Mariana Lopez.

India is home to 20% of the world’s menstruating women. While only 58% use menstrual products, the result is over 12 billion pads discarded in India annually. Modern, non-biodegradable products – which are 90% plastic – are now found in water supplies, piled on dumpsites, or left to be removed by waste pickers who are then exposed to diseases.

Despite using modern sanitary products, menstrual taboos still affect the ways women dispose of products, Lopez found. Women believe that menstrual blood is “bad” and can harm those who come into contact with it. Some users attempt to hide blood by wrapping them in plastic bags, increasing the waste’s lifespan. Other users also wash these products before disposing of them.

Lopez’s research estimates that by 2030 the number of discarded pads in India could reach 30 billion, equivalent to 800,000 tons of waste per year. If these products were also washed and wrapped, this would result in an extra 1,800 million tonnes of plastic and water. With countries such as China and Brazil also seeing increasing sales of modern menstrual products, the environmental impact is global and rapidly scaling.

To address these issues, Lopez is calling for policies that address stigma, and prioritise disposability as much as accessibility of products, in line with the different socio-cultural and religious needs as well as working with existing sanitation and waste management systems. This issue is increasingly relevant as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause shortages in product supplies and mobility restrictions that are increasing the difficulties to dispose of these products and hampering waste pickers’ ability to manage this waste.

“We cannot simply promote the uptake and use of sanitary products without a more holistic approach to the life-cycle of the product and consideration of the consequences on the livelihoods of individuals who work in waste management. We must look at the taboo surrounding these issues, the culture in which people live, and the very practical issue of how these items can be discarded that does not impact public health or the environment. ”

Lopez conducted interviews with consumers, waste pickers and commercial, civil society and policy stakeholders across two locations in Indian to inform her research which can be found here.