As I reflect on my menarche, I distinctly remember how my grandmother handed me a folded cotton cloth instead of a normal plastic pad. She did not say anything and I was confused by her reaction to the news of my first period. Isn’t it unhygienic to use a cloth? I thought. Thanks to the menstrual hygiene sessions in my school, I knew how to deal with the situation. I grabbed a packet of the synthetic pad from my mother’s cupboard and walked away, smirking at the folded cloth. My grandmother did not say a word probably because back in her days, the topic of periods had been so hush-hush. Twelve years ago, I felt so empowered by the thought that I knew better than my grandmother. But now that I think of it, I feel I should have just taken that folded cotton cloth. It would have saved me from years of suffering from rashes and chafing because of those plastic-backed, bleached out, white cotton disposables.
According to tests conducted by several consumer watchdogs, most of these synthetic pads are made from plastics and synthetic fibres like super-absorbent acrylic polymers. These disposable pads are also treated with chemicals like chlorine dioxide, synthetic chemicals and artificial fragrances which lead to production of harmful pollutants like dioxin. This remains in the body for years together leading to hormone disruption, allergic reactions, reproductive and gynecological disorders like endometriosis. The plastic layer on the pad blocks airflow to the vagina which can cause painful rashes and cramps.
Another huge problem is sanitary waste disposal. Did you know that a woman can generate up to 125kg of non-biodegradable waste through her menstruating years alone? And studies have shown that it takes about 500 to 800 years for a normal plastic sanitary pad to decompose. As per an estimate by the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI), there are 336 million menstruating women in India, of which 36 per cent (121 million) use disposable sanitary napkins. If we were to calculate the number of pads used by these women in a year—probably seven to eight pads per cycle—it is about 12.3 billion disposable sanitary napkins that our country has to take care of annually. A whopping number indeed. At a time when the environment is being brutally degraded due to anthropogenic activities, the need of the hour is to do our bit to reduce our carbon footprint.
There are many sustainable products in the market that one can use instead of a synthetic pad. Most notably, the menstrual cup. But, many women cannot use these cups due to disorders that cause pain in the opening of the vagina such as vulvodynia and vaginismus. These conditions can cause extreme discomfort and many avoid using the cup as it can result in more pain. Then there are many who are petrified by the idea of inserting something into the vagina. And the remaining are simply disgusted about the whole thing. The switch to sustainable menstruation is highly essential considering the amount of waste we generate but it need not be painful or scary.
For Kathy Walkling who moved to India 23 years ago, her biggest challenge at the time was not culture shock or language barrier, but disposal of sanitary waste. She had moved to Auroville, Tamil Nadu, from her home country, Australia, to start a new life. “Where I had come from, there is at least the appearance that these products go ‘away’ when tossed into that conveniently placed ‘sanitary bin’ that was next to every toilet. Arriving in India, with its highly visible mountains of garbage, I was forced to recognise that my sanitary waste was not going ‘away’ after all!” she says.
In the initial days of her stay, she lurked around like a fugitive in the bushes, looking for a place where she could discreetly dig a hole to bury her used pads and tampons. “Throwing them in a bin for others to handle or burning these wet products with their plastic liners was unimaginable,” she says.
It was during a trip to New Zealand that she came across her first washable cloth pad in a small village shop. “The pad was made of colourful soft flannel cotton, unbranded and obviously homemade by a local woman. I instinctively knew this was what I had been looking for and for the first time ever, felt excited about getting my next period! From the day of first use, I was converted! One by one all the benefits became apparent,” Kathy says.
The challenge was the washing part. Most women get disgusted by the thought of washing a blood-soaked cloth. “I would be lying if I said I was perfectly at ease with the idea of washing. But the reality was better than I imagined. After dropping the pad in a bucket of cold water to soak, most of the blood came out so, washing took almost no time at all,” says Kathy.
This changed Kathy’s life and made her question the aversion she had to her menstrual blood. After coming back to Auroville, she started making cloth pads for the community she lived in. Surprisingly, many showed interest and made the switch to cloth pads. She also encouraged women to talk openly about menstrual problems and hygiene aspects associated with it.
In 2010, she met Jessamijn Miedema who also loved cloth pads. And together they came up with a social enterprise called Eco Femme. “We were both very concerned by the growing mountain of sanitary waste which we knew was increasing rapidly due to increased adoption of disposable sanitary napkins and a lack of proper solid waste management systems in India. With Eco Femme, we dream of a cloth pad revolution,” says Kathy.
The EcoFemme cloth pads are made of layers of organic, absorbent cotton and function exactly like a synthetic pad. It has features like wings and leak-proofing; it comes in four different sizes to cover all kinds of flow. The pad has a polyurethane laminate (PUL) which acts as a leak-guard. The pads are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. “We have ambassadors across the country who explain to buyers how the pads function. It is not a pickle that can be just put up for sale anywhere; it is essential that buyers are sensitised about the impact of their switch and the benefits of it,” says Kathy. Cloth pads can cost more up front than a pack of disposables, but they last longer. “The pad can be used for up to 75 washes. Most people think that hot water is better for washing but in case of blood, avoid a hot wash as it can set stains,” she says.
Washable sanitary napkins are breathable hence there will be no sweat and discomfort during its usage. Even in case of white discharge, cloth is much better than synthetic pads.
Cloth pads have been instrumental in not only reducing waste but also eliminating disgust associated with menstruation. As for Kathy, the pads have really helped transform her relationship with her body and establish a restorative relationship with the earth. Ladies, it is time to make the switch. n
The right blend
Last year, two IIT Delhi boys Archit Agarwal and Harry Sehrawat came up with a better version of the cloth pads. They used banana fibre for making biodegradable pads that can last for up to 120 washes or two years. Banana fibre is known to have excellent absorption properties. The pads made out of this fibre are hygienic, easy to wash and quick dry. The extended life of these sanitary napkins can help in curbing the environment hazard of disposed sanitary pads to a great extent.
A patent has also been filed for these reusable pads.
The sanitary napkins are made up of four layers of different fabrics:
- Polyester pilling fabric which is highly wicking and gives a dry experience throughout the day time
- Terry and banana fibres including viscose and polyester fibres which make these napkins highly absorbent
- Cotton polyurethane laminate which is a breathable layer in the pad with water-resistant properties to offer leak-proof experience.
Take your pick
Soch: The pads are made of soft fabric, combed cotton and microfibre. They also sell inter-labia pads.
Jaioni: Available in many colours and pretty prints, these are 100 per cent vegan and handmade. Even the snap buttons are made from coconut shell and wood.
Peesafe: Made with breathable fabric, the pads are soft enough to prevent any kind of itching or rashes which usually happens in case of synthetic pads.
UGER Pads: Hundred per cent cotton pads in bright hues. It also comes in a kit with multiple products called ‘potli’.
Unipads: Easy-to-wash, long lasting pads with powerful soaking layer.