Menstrual waste management laws in India

There are no concrete laws in place for menstrual waste management in India. It is treated as reject waste and one possible categorization under sanitary waste is it being treated as bio-medical waste. The following are the laws relating to menstrual waste management:

What does the law say?

Due to ambiguities inherent in India’s waste laws, proper disposal and management of used sanitary napkins confounds researchers, social workers, and policy makers alike. The source of this growing stream of reject waste is in households and falls under the purview of municipalities but one possible interpretation categorizes sanitary waste as bio-medical waste. In most parts of India, used sanitary napkins are mixed with all other forms of waste and collected by municipalities.

Bio-Medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998

  • Under this law, waste containing blood, body fluids or faeces should be regarded as bio-medical waste. Strictly speaking, such interpretation requires the assumption that the process of collecting menstrual fluids takes place in the course of ‘treatment’ of human beings.
  • All bio-medical waste is required to be collected, stored, transported and processed separately and exclusively in Bio Medical Waste treatment Facilities. Bio-Medical waste should be properly marked in distinctive packaging and given the presence of chlorinated wood pulp and plastics, menstrual hygiene waste has to be autoclaved (sterilized under high pressure using steam), microwaved (disinfecting through moist heat generated by microwaves) or burnt in approved and registered bio-medical incinerators.
  • Obviously, the treatment of menstrual hygiene waste as biomedical waste faces opposition from municipalities due to the sheer volume (an estimated 5% of all MSW) and complex logistics associated with separate handling of this stream of waste.

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Rules (2000)

  • The existing MSW Rules contain no provisions relating to Sanitary Waste.
  • However, these rules are currently under revision, and the latest draft has provisions for dealing with sanitary waste as a separate waste stream, only to the extent of separate packaging at source of generation and thereafter inclusion in dry/ non-biodegradable category of waste. (This excuses brand owners of any extended producers responsibilities and will also result in a bulk of sanitary waste ending up in landfills or incineration plants. )

The Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011

  • Even though commercial sanitary napkins contain a significant amount of plastic, this law does not clearly state that commercial sanitary napkins and diapers come under its purview. It is left up to the court to interpret the law in this context.
  • The law has an Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) clause, according to which, the municipal authority may ask manufacturers – either collectively or individually – to provide the required finance to establish plastic waste collection centres.
  • The collection of the funds under EPR is not rigorously enforced by the municipal government.
  • In April 2014, the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal issued notice to six manufacturers of leading sanitary napkin companies, the state government, and Chennai Corporation in response to a petition filed by a social activist named Gopi Vijaykumar. The latter said that the unscientific disposal of sanitary pads was causing environmental pollution and the manufacturers were bound by the EPR clause under the Plastic Rules of 2011.

Labour laws

The management of menstrual hygiene waste and EPR requires serious consideration on part of governments at all levels as it directly affects the dignity and health of millions of waste-pickers, both protected under the Right to Life enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The handling of menstrual hygiene waste with bare hands is a health hazard and an affront the dignity of waste workers across the country. Various labour laws also guarantee occupational health and safety measures for workers, however, in reality, there is no respite for waste workers as far as actual handling of sanitary waste goes.

Best practices for waste  collection and disposal

Notwithstanding the problematic categorization of menstrual hygiene waste, it is imperative to:

  1. prohibit the incineration of menstrual hygiene waste where the product contains chlorinated wood pulp and plastic.
  2. prohibit flushing of menstrual hygiene waste down the toilets as they lead to clogging sewers.

Source segregation, sterilization by  autoclaving/microwaving, followed by recycling and composting of the various layers are recommended as the best practices. Companies such as Knowaste and Envirocomp in UK and New Zealand now use such technology to process sanitary waste.

Fact sheet prepared by Harshad Barde, SWACH and Bindu Mohanty, earth&us