By Stella Paul
PILGAON/GOA, India, Jun 30 2020 (IPS)
Jayashree Parwar has not traveled much outside of her village of Bicholim in the western coastal Indian state of Goa. But the homemaker-turned-social-entrepreneur has been reaching women in dozens of cities across the country with a hygiene product she makes at home along with women from her community.
Called Sakhi (friend in Hindi), the plastic-free sanitary pad is Goa’s first menstrual hygiene product made with organic materials.
Plastic challenge of sanitary pads
According to a 2018 joint report by Water Aid India and the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India, women and girls here use a whopping 12 billion sanitary pads annually. Depending on the materials used in the making of the sanitary pads, they could take up to 800 years to decompose, the report says.
Currently, most sanitary pads have over 90 percent composition plastics — the equivalent of four plastic bags.
Parwar doesn’t know these statistics very well but is aware of the growing plastic nuisance in her state.
“Wherever you go, there is plastic. You can go to any beach and there are heaps of plastic. A lot of it like cups, bottles, spoons etc are used by tourists and hotels, but we locals also use a lot of plastic, especially the carry bags for shopping,” she tells IPS, before adding that the eco-friendly Sakhi sanitary pads are her own way of mitigating the plastic challenge.
“A small step to reduce a big burden”
Parwar’s journey of a thousand pads started in the summer of 2015 in the narrow, tin-roofed hut adjoining her living room that she calls her ‘workshop’.
Three other women from her community joined her. They all share a similar background: none of them have studied beyond high school; they are from a low income group; and they all have dreams of a better life for their family and children.
Their resources were few: a few hundred rupees as their capital and a compressing machine donated by local doctor Subbu Nayak. Nayak also trained them in pad making and connected them with a raw material supplier in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
The process is fairly simple and making a single sanitary pad takes around five minutes, explains Nasreen Sheikh, one of Parwar’s colleagues.
“First we grind the pinewood fibre, then put it into a mould, press it and wrap it in (non-woven) cloth, sticking butter paper on one side and finally we sterilise it,” Sheikh tells IPS.
However, although they had a machine and the skills, a crucial component was still missing. They had no customers.
Fortunately for them, support came from different quarters, including the government’s Urban Development Department. Sumit Singh, an official from the department who leads the Clean India Mission, taught Parwar and her partners how to market themselves online with retailers like Amazon.
Parwar and her colleagues had no prior business experience and limited resources. They naturally saw online marketing as an exciting opportunity.
“We chose to sell on Amazon because none of us have the time or means to go out and market (the sanitary pads) in stores or malls. Besides, online we can have clients even outside of Goa,” Parwar says.
After four years of struggling to build the business and develop a steady customer base, along with numerous failed attempts to secure bank loans to grow their business, the women finally managed to expand beyond the narrow tin shed to a bigger room (their factory) where they now make a thousand pads every month.
“We are only making a 1,000 pads in a month, so it’s a very small step, but I believe every small step counts,” Parwar says.
Growing demand for plastic-free
They have received orders from bigger cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad and New Delhi. Unlike known brands and corporate manufacturers, Parwar’s group doesn’t have the ability to advertise, but word of mouth, social media and a growing environmental consciousness have helped them, she says.
“We use materials that are completely natural: pinewood fibre, non-woven cloth, butter paper. There is nothing there to cause itching or skin rashes and once you dispose it, this pad will compost in eight days. We have given demonstration in many schools and other organisations. People have tried it and seen how the composting really works,” Alita Pilgaonkar, another member of the group, tells IPS.
The sanitary pads also decompose in about two weeks.
Eight sanitary pads cost 40 rupees and bulk pack containing 96 pads costs 700 rupees. They are cheaper than most popular brands but the women say that they manage to make a small profit.
Reusable vs compostable
Could a total shift to plastic-free sanitary pads be a possibility and could it curb the ever-increasing plastic burden?
Ideally, it is possible, but the willpower seems to be currently missing, Kathy Walkling, co-founder of Ecofemme, tells IPS. Ecofemme is another women-led initiative that makes eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products. Based in Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) on the country’s southern coast, Ecofemme produces and advocates for reusable sanitary pads that are both plastic-free and affordable.
“If government would back these initiatives, this could have a powerful effect to make a mainstream shift,” Walkling tells IPS.
But Eline Bakker Kruijne, an environmental engineer and formerly a programme officer at Netherlands-based international think-tank IRC WASH, tells IPS that no significant changes are possible without changing the current disposal system.
Pointing at the practice of treating discarded menstrual products, whether organic or plastic, as hazardous and burning them, Bakker Kruijne says that single-use pads are of no help as incineration only adds to pollution levels.
“It is all about how these single-use materials break down in the environment and if it requires an industrial process (like incineration), does it really help us?” Bakker Kruijne asks.
Walkling also says that single-use menstrual products, even if compostable, add to the daily waste volume. But public preference is currently tilted heavily towards these single-use pads as people see them as more hygienic than reusables.
However, both the experts feel that moving away from plastic is a positive step.
“With each person who shifts to a reusable and non polluting product, approx 125 kg of sanitary waste per person over a lifetime of use will be prevented. There are currently approx 355 million menstruating girls and women in India and if each uses 10 pads/month this would generate 42.6 billion pads every year (355million*10pads*12 months).
“Obviously given these numbers, more women switching to re-usable products makes a significant difference,” Walking tells IPS.
Meanwhile, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown that has severely affected India’s economic sector has not left the producers of the Sakhi sanitary pads unaffected. Their main supplier in Coimbatore, in south India, stopped operations, almost forcing the women out of business. However, they have recently managed to find another supplier in Mumbai.
Sales have also decreased, but Parwar is confident of recovering quickly once the crisis is over. Because, as she says, women’s “periods will not stop”.
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