To burn or not to burn: That’s the question

Incineration of menstrual waste is being promoted by the Indian government in a rush to handle menstrual waste. Even in its Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) guidelines, government has been promoting the use of mini incinerators in schools and women’s sanitary complexes to burn sanitary pads. But is that the best solution?

The drive to install incinerators:

  • The government drive, Swachh Bharat, Swachh Vidyalaya mission recommends installing at least one incinerator in the girl’s toilet block of every school to burn  sanitary napkins.
  • In certain states, like Tamil Nadu, UNICEF has helped to build incinerators at schools and also promote simple, single-chamber, iron-drum incinerators for home usage.
  • Seizing the market potential of this government directive, corporations have installed mini electric incinerators, such as NapiBurn and Reprocide, that cost about Rs. 20,000 in many schools and colleges in India.
  • Vatsalya Foundation’s, “Ashudhinashak” is a more eco-friendly and much cheaper incinerator made from concrete and clay by local potters. It is priced at Rs. 1500/- Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan officials have decided to install these incinerators in 500 government schools across Gujarat.


How safe are the emissions from incinerators?

  • There are, however, serious concerns about the technology of mini incinerators, which by law have to approved by the CPCB and the State Pollution Control Board. As of yet, there are no provisions to monitor the emissions from these incinerators. As of yet, there are no independent peer-reviewed studies testifying that emissions from such incinerators do not adversely affect public health.
  • WHO recommends incinerating all health-related waste only at temperatures over 800 degrees, for when plastic polymer products, such as disposable pads, are burned at lower temperatures they typically release poisonous gases including dioxins and furans, which are highly toxic even in trace quantities.
  • The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternative recommends applying the “precautionary principle” to incinerator technology pointing out that even in high temperature incinerators (>800 °C), temperatures are not uniformly maintained, and dioxins and furans can form in cooler pockets or during start-up or shut-down periods.
  • The state government of Kerala has banned installation of mini incinerators as “they were of single chamber working in low temperature and not complying with CPCB norms.”
  • Some believe, a better solution to mini-incinerators would be to declare sanitary waste as bio-medical waste, which is then incinerated in registered and approved centralized incinerators. Municipal governments are not keen on this solution given the sheer amount of menstrual hygiene waste that is generated, currently estimated at 9000 tons per month nationwide.
  • Worldwide, incineration as a means for waste management is being questioned. In India, we need more peer-reviewed scientific studies before we declare them as the solution for dealing with menstrual hygiene waste.