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By Machrine Birungi
Nearly 121 million women and adolescent girls in India use on average eight sanitary napkins per menstrual cycle. That translates to 1 million pads generated monthly, which then results into 12 billion pads produced and disposed of annually in India alone.
As the use of sanitary pads increases, so does the amount of sanitary waste generated. The primary concern, for now, is how these pads are disposed of and their impact on the environment.
According to a joint report by Water Aid India and the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India, depending on the materials used in the manufacture of the sanitary pads, it could take up to 800 years to decompose a single sanitary napkin.
It's the magnitude of the problems associated with the disposal of sanitary waste that sowed a seed of innovation in Ajinkya Dhariya, a young innovator from India and founder and chief executive officer of PadCare Labs.
Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, and knowledge about the impact of sanitary towels on the environment, Ajinkya designed the PadCare Sanicure napkin disposal machine in response to the need for awareness on the safe disposal of sanitary pads.
“I found out that depending on where they leave; many women tend to dispose of the sanitary pads either by burning them or throwing them in the garbage bins which later end up in the landfills forming part of the plastic waste choking the environment.”
Ajinkya's journey to finding a solution to menstrual waste started with an interaction with young girls and women, many of whom he says were shy to talk about menstruation and unaware of safe and hygienic ways to dispose of their sanitary pads.
“We live in a country where the subject of menstruation is a taboo, it's not surprised that menstrual waste in India is a silent issue, that’s why there has been less attention given to finding innovative solutions that can positively impact the lives of menstruators,” said Ajinkya.
But Ajinkya says conversations about menstruation must be brought out into the public, because in his opinion, the lack of awareness of the dangers of menstrual waste aggravates the problem, resulting in inappropriate and unsafe disposal practices.
“Many women dispose of their sanitary pads without giving much thought on where it ends up and with what impact and young girls have not been told how to dispose of their pads safely,” he says.
How the PadCare Labs Saneco disposal machine works
According to UNICEF’s Guidance on Menstrual Health and Hygiene, effective menstrual hygiene management means that “menstrual materials can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of the menstruation period. It also means that menstruators have access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials.”
As described by Ajinkya, toilet cubicles can be fitted with PadCare Sanicure machines, and much the same way hand driers are installed in washrooms. This enables menstruators to drop the used sanitary pad through the open flap on the top of the machine all in the privacy of an enclosed cubicle.
Ajinkya explains that the sanitary pad disposal machine is fitted with a mechanical shredder, chemical disinfection and a waste segregation compartments. The device is switched on for a few seconds to remove the odours, disinfect, disintegrate and decolourize the sanitary waste.
The Padcare Sanicure napkin disposal machine converts used sanitary pads into harmless waste. “Our machine not only destroys the pads in an ecofriendly manner, but it is an innovation that aims to create a circular economy by transforming a problem to progress,” Ajinka says.
“The economic conversion of used sanitary pads into waste is free of harm," Ajinkya says. “The shredded sanitary pad is recycled into industrial packaging and compost.”
Ajinkya, a winner of the Aarohan Social Innovation Award and the Birac Innovation Challenge Award, says the PadCare sanitary pad disposal and recycling machine ensures safety, accessibility and dignity to cater for the biological needs of women.
“Menstrual waste management must give women and girls the confidence and space to manage their hygiene,” he says.
Plans are underway to install the Padcare sterilization, segregation, and disposal machines at airports, hospitals, universities and schools, markets and shopping malls.Providing a holistic approach to menstrual health and dignity
The PadCare Labs team has pledged to give a dignified holistic lifestyle to everyone – right from menstruators to manual scavengers.
“Constantly handling menstrual waste with their bare hands without proper tools and protection is unacceptable. It affects their dignity,” Ajinkya says, referring to the manual scavengers who manage public toilets.
“These sanitation workers dealing with the hurdle of unblocking the sewage system at times must dive into the sewage pits to unclog the pipes.”
He says the PadCare Labs machine will protect manual scavengers from contracting infections and diseases acquired from collecting menstrual waste with bare hands.
Taking a holistic approach and involving women in all stages of product development has helped Ajinkya gain visibility in India as an environmental champion who is keen to ensure that menstrual waste disposal is hygienic, safe and gives women a sense of dignity.
The target for PadCare Labs is to reach one million women by the end of 2020 with Padcare sterilization, segregation, and disposal units.
"Sanitation disposal facilities must be accessible by all women," Ajinkya says.