Is a Sanitary Pad Biodegradable?

In this brief report we will be discussing the biodegradability of sanitary napkins, its material composition, its harmful effects on our environment, and the alternative source for a most eco-friendly product. 

On a final note we will be mentioning the efforts taken by many companies and government agencies to deal with the plastic waste problem occurring due to sanitary pads and a safe measure for its disposal.

Is a sanitary pad biodegradable?

Sanitary pads are not biodegradable, at least not within the span of human life. It takes almost 800 years for it to decompose through natural processes. With its every use by millions of menstruating people, these plastic waste are piling up in landfill with no other way than to wait for it to decompose naturally. 

Imagine the tons of waste that this and the coming generation have to deal with. The main reason behind its non-biodegradability is the use of plastic to make these pads. Almost 70-90% material of a sanitary pad is plastic that cannot be broken down by the naturally occurring microorganisms. 

What are sanitary pads made of?

There are three main raw materials that all sanitary pads uses to meet its purpose .

  • Plastic wrapping 
  • Polyethylene back cover
  • Super absorbent polymer (SAP) 
  • Polypropylene top sheet

The packaging of each sanitary pads comes with individual wrapping and the main material used for wrapping is plastic to keep it dry and dust free during transportation and storing.

The back cover is mostly made of polyethylene to keep it dry without leaking. This plastic cover is also coated with adhesives for its proper positioning. The purpose of polypropylene front cover is also the same as it keeps the pas dry during its use.

Both polypropylene and polyethylene are non-biodegradable materials and are among the major causes of plastic pollution. Their use cannot be compromised until another material that serves this purpose is available.

Another important material used in the sanitary pad is the super absorbent material which is made up of sodium polyacrylate and polyacrylamide copolymer. These polymers are super water absorbent and help in retaining the menstrual blood without leaking it. 

The polyacrylamides are also not highly biodegradable and remain in waste or natural water systems for a long period of time. Thus, the conventional sanitary pad is made mostly of plastic and they even fall in the single use category. You can now imagine the number of plastic waste generated through the use of a sanitary pad alone.

What are the issues with the use of sanitary pads

Sanitary pads are used worldwide by the menstruating people. Its advantages and disadvantages are like two sides of a coin. In one way, the use of sanitary promotes better hygienic practice but on the other hand it adds to the already existing plastic pollution.

In India alone, 121 million girls and women are using disposable sanitary napkins. This is only a small percentage of menstruating people as most of the people in rural areas depend on other ways such as clothes. 

With proper education by government agencies more and more people are choosing a better alternative than clothes. Hence the number of people using sanitary pads will increase exponentially. In India the number of sanitary pads disposed accounts to 12.3 billion every month.

Without proper handling, the usage of sanitary pads will prove hazardous to our environment as most people are choosing to burn the used sanitary pads. 

The use of Super Absorbent Polymers further adds to the problem as these contain water absorbing polymers such as polyacrylate that can lead to water clogging and contamination. 

Not only this, but the conventional pads also contain chemicals such as chlorine and parabens that can cause infection and allergies to the user. 

Adding to the issue is the recyclability problem. The used sanitary pads need to be discarded because they contain biological waste. If it is discarded along with the recyclable waste, you will end up contaminating the whole thing. The only solution is to properly discard them because of sanitary problems, health issues and the material used for making them.

What are the most eco-friendly alternatives to sanitary pads?

Owing to the concerns of plastic pollution, many companies and startups have come up with biodegradable sanitary pads. The use of clothes is gaining momentum again as these were already used practices long back. Its striking feature is its reusability with proper washing and sanitizing. 

In India there are nine star ups that are dedicated to the production of environmentally friendly sanitary pads. Many have developed cotton and bamboo based sanitary napkins with efficiency equivalent to the conventional plastic sanitary napkins while other companies are utilizing the benefits of corn, cassava, sugarcane, and stale bale to make sanitary pads.

Use of these naturally available raw materials has their own benefits such as the biodegradability, high absorbance, breathable, and antibacterial rash-free effect. Most of the biodegradable pads disintegrate within 90-180 days.

The use of plant based material is one such development that has reduced the issues with plastic as the raw materials. Some have even made the packaging using bioplastics that are biodegradable. Even in rural areas, a number of women entrepreneurs have taken up the task of making eco-friendly sanitary pads using banana tree fibers.

Is Silicone Cup a solution for the plastic problem?

Another alternative that has caught many eyes is the silicone cups used in place of sanitary pads. These are made from silicone which is highly durable and can last long. The durability of silicone is what catches the attention of many. Only one cup is needed per person for a year long use. 

This is a drastic change compared to the thousand tons of plastic waste generated every year. Compared to plastic, silicone is highly durable and more ocean friendly. They are also made from the widely available raw material such as silicon unlike the plastic which is affecting our fossil reserve.

Silicons are also non-toxic and are well tolerated by humans. They do not leach out any chemicals like the plastics do and can be reused many times until it is worn out.

A note to the readers

Though many options are available, it is in human nature and willingness to bring about a change by making an effort to include the most eco-friendly product in their day to day life.

Government agencies have taken a step forward in educating people for proper disposal of sanitary napkins. However, there are many gaps that need to be filled in terms of appropriate waste management options. 

Many are not disposing of them properly which affects the cleaning workers who have to segregate the biological wastes from the other waste. This way the workers are exposed to different infections and are prone to health risks.

As a change to one’s usual habit, why not try the biodegradable options when there are many available. With the same efficiency and same cost, many biodegradable sanitary pads have been brought to the market. 

When people start choosing the most eco-friendly options the companies are forced to opt for an environmentally friendly product which will positively influence the next generations to come. 

Conclusion

The post “Is a sanitary pad biodegradable?” discusses the current issues with conventional sanitary napkins, its use, degradability by natural process, how its overuse affects the environment, and the biodegradable option available in the market.  The article also calls your attention in managing and disposing waste sanitary napkins without affecting anyone’s safety. 

Frequently answered questions (FAQs): Is a sanitary pad biodegradable?

Are sanitary products biodegradable?

The conventional sanitary pads are made up of mostly plastics and hence are not biodegradable. The naturally occurring bacteria are incapable of degrading them and the waste remains in our eco system for thousands of years. 

However, biodegradable sanitary pads are a better alternative to conventional pads as they are made of plant based materials and debrade within 90-180 days.

How do you dispose of period pads?

The sanitary pads contain biological waste and need to be disposed of safely. The best way is to wrap them in newspapers before throwing them in the trash. This way it will be safe for the workers who segregate them and dispose of them separately. Never flush down in the toilet as it may clog the septic system.

Can period pads be recycled?

Sanitary pads cannot be recycled as it is against the recycling regulation. This is due to the fact that they contain biological waste and many layers of materials that cannot be separately removed. Even packaging materials also disintegrate during the recycling process, hence, it is better to dispose of them in the trash bin in a safe manner.

Are cotton sanitary pads biodegradable?

Cotton sanitary pads are made from naturally available plant materials and hence are biodegradable. Some of the natural materials used are cotton, banana fibers, cassava etc. They are a better alternative to plastic based sanitary pads which take thousands of years to decompose.

Are bamboo pads biodegradable?

Bamboo pads are the best alternative to plastic sanitary pads as they are made from bamboo plant fiber which is a naturally available plant material and hence are biodegradable. There is also a positive side of using bamboo fiber as these plants mature within a few months are great absorbers of carbon dioxide. Thus they are the most eco-friendly and renewable source. 

Can I burn used sanitary pads?

Sanitary pads should not be burned in open spaces as these contain mostly plastic which emit toxic fumes. In most hospitals, these are incinerated along with other biological materials in a safe manner. 

The best way to dispose of sanitary pads is to wrap it in newspaper and throw them in trash bins. This way the sanitary workers can segregare them without affecting their safety.

References

Ann Mburu and Joseph Kinyaanjui, “Development of a Highly Absorbent and Antibacterial Biodegradable Sanitary Pad from Bamboo,” published in National Council for Science and Technology Nairobi, 13-17 May 2013

An Overview On Sanitary Napkins, Technical textile. Net., https://www.technicaltextile.net/articles/an-overview-on-sanitary-napkins-7850

Irwin M. Hutten, Chapter 1 – Introduction to Nonwoven Filter Media, Handbook of Nonwoven Filter Media (Second Edition), Butterworth-Heinemann, 2016 (1-52)

https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-098301-1.00001-0.

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