“Eco Femme will speak with anyone who is concerned with the relationship between menstrual health and a clean environment.”

Ladies, perhaps you have wondered what happens to the non-biodegradable menstrual products we use every month. Many of us might have had an inkling that it isn’t good for the environment. Despite this, we continue to use the products, believing that there isn’t another way, or, in some cases, knowing that there are alternatives but being too afraid to try them.

Eco Femme, located in Auroville, in southern India is a growing social enterprise that designs and stitches washable cotton pads, sells menstrual silicone cups, and conducts menstrual educational seminars for women, children and societies across rural India. They provide a livelihood for ten rural women in Auroville, who stitch the Eco Femme cotton pads.

The IPF spoke to Laura O’Connell, Eco Femme’s Communications Officer, who told us about the various projects Eco Femme has been a part of since its establishment in 2010. Their co-founder, Kathy, originally from Australia, came to India in 1998 and discovered that there were no proper waste management techniques for used menstrual waste in Auroville. In February 2015, they launched a campaign with WasteLess, an enterprise that tackles the issue of disposable pads being flushed down toilets in public areas in Auroville. Together, they created educational workshops with workers and students and presented alternative menstrual products at subsidised pricing. 

Eco Femme

Women stitching Eco Femme pads. [Image credit: Eco Femme]

Environmental impacts on disposable pads

“Within India, our growing market means that there is an impact in reducing the number of disposable products being used each month.”

Most commercially branded disposable pads present a number of threats to a safe, healthy environment.

Laura emphasised the differences between cloth and disposable pads, noting that disposable pads are burnt and sprayed with pesticides, mainly made from LDPE plastic polymers, bleached wood pulp and super-absorbent gel. The British-born Eco Femme member also explained that these pads are causing waste management problems:

“Though incinerators are attractive because they seem to make used pads ‘disappear’ most incinerators produce toxic ash and emissions; if plastic polymers are not burned at an appropriate temperature (above 800 degrees Celsius) they release asphyxiates and irritant gases into the atmosphere.”

According to the 1994 US Environmental Protection Agency report, furans and dioxins are highly carcinogenic and toxic air pollutants. The World Health Organisation states that any source of organic materials, such as disposable pads, during inadequate incineration will typically create dioxins and furans during combustion which are released into the atmosphere. Laura also highlighted how these emissions are detrimental to our own health:

“Exposure to emissions or resulting ash may cause adverse health effects to the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems. The production of petroleum-based plastic pads also has an adverse environmental impact.”

Eco Femme

Menstrual cycle tracking using seeds during the Pad For Pad seminar. [Image credit: Eco Femme]

Eco Femme’s sustainable cotton pads

By contrast, the Eco Femme cotton pads are made of natural materials, with only a very thin layer of plastic leak proofing. They are also easier to dispose once not suitable for use any more. Typically, each of these pads can be used for at least three to five years and the flannels of the pads are unbleached. The reason why conventional sanitary products have that pristine white clean look is because it contains chlorine bleach, which creates dioxin and ends up in the environment and in women’s fatty tissues.

Since these sanitary napkins are purely made of cotton, they pose big questions on how the sustainable product can be cleaned. Laura explained how it can be maintained:

“A cloth washable pad is reusable for approximately 75 washes, while a plastic pad is a single use-and-throw disposable product. Further, washable cloth pads produce much less upstream waste as they are not a petroleum-based product. However, they do require a clean, reliable water source.”

Enforcing the importance of the environment

India is a country consisting of conservative traditions, which often need to be addressed with respect and delicacy. Laura told us how the project initially raised questions about menstrual hygiene management (MHM) among children and women in the rural areas of the state of Tamil Nadu. It was for this reason that Eco Femme decided to partner with local NGO Auroville Villiage Action Group (AVAG) in 2010. AVAG helped them conduct research via individual surveys, which revealed that there was a need to open dialogue on menstruation, MHM education (particularly for adolescent girls) and the need for affordable and sustainable menstrual products.

Eco Femme has been replacing the silence surrounding menstrual talk with conversation and action through their ‘Pad for Pad‘ program, which they offer to schoolgirls in Auroville. With each pad they sell internationally, the cost of another pad is donated to ‘Pad for Pad’. At the end of the session, they give the girls a free Eco Femme kit, which contains information on menstrual health, hygiene, different products, as well as the impact it has on the environment, cycle tracking and natural remedies to nurture the body during menstruation. They’ve also had a successful ongoing campaign called ‘Pads for Sisters‘, which offers pads at a subsidised rate to women living in rural India.

Eco Femme

Girls from local schools in Auroville during an Eco Femme educational seminar. [Image credit: Eco Femme]

“In educational seminars for both women and girls, the subject of environment is discussed with group analysis on the impact of disposable versus reusable, safe methods of disposal and the problems of managing sanitary waste.”

Laura explained that very often women and girls are aware of the damage sanitary waste causes to our environment, public health and even social justice. She noted: “They see that there is a need for change but usually don’t know there are alternative options to disposable products.”

Despite all the work they do, Eco Femme’s teachings do not end there. They also offer workshops to “all levels of society” and continue collaborating with NGOs, grassroots women’s groups, and universities by providing introductory sessions to mental health, hygiene practices, and alternative products, which Laura described as being the “non-polluting option”.

If you’d like to purchase an Eco Femme product or learn more about their work, visit their website.