Anandi’s Indian biodegradable sanitary pads
Wood pulp and cornstarch-based materials are being used to make fully compostable sanitary pads.
India has 336 million women of menstruating age, of which 36% (121 million) use disposable sanitary napkins, according to the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI). With an average of eight pads used per cycle, India has to manage 12.3 billion pads every year, most of which are made with polymers and are not biodegradable or compostable.
An estimated nine out of 10 women in India do not use sanitary pads at all. My research found that, particularly in villages, women did not know what a sanitary pad looked like, while for others, they did not use them because of problems with disposability. Sometimes, used sanitary pads would be put in a mud pit along with other rubbish in their backyard, but if it is too shallow, it is common for dogs to smell them, dig them up and strew them across the front of the house. This also occurs with diapers.
To address the disposability problem and related embarrassment, some women think, ‘we should stop using the pads. Why not use the bad cloths which don’t need to be thrown out, they can be washed and reused’. In some families, there might be a household with three females who will share one between them.
There seems to be a lot of stigma and taboo, which may compound hygiene issues and affect the decisions women make regarding how to manage their menstrual cycles. Some taboos include that women should not touch pickle jars or the vegetables will supposedly rot, and they may also not go to the temple or will not cook. Men also don’t seem to talk with women about the menstrual cycle. In countries like England and in Europe, women have said to me, ‘you are the first man to talk to me about menstrual hygiene in such detail’. Education and awareness building activities on menstrual hygiene management may help with this.
However, manufacturing fully compostable and biodegradable sanitary pads would provide a low-cost, hygienic solution and divert tonnes of waste from the standard materials waste. The Anandi sanitary pads by Aakar Innovations uses pinewood as the main material in the absorbent layer, while the top and bottom layers are made with a cornstarch-based bio-compostable plastic. The materials were chosen to help the pads break down, particularly if they are not disposed of correctly in waste streams. It is also intended as a low-cost solution that may help change behaviours such as reusing cloths and sharing them with other female household members, which often happens in Indian villages and can lead to health problems.
Anandi was one of three winners of the Bio-based Material of the Year 2019 Innovation Award at the 12th International Conference on Bio-Based Materials in Cologne, Germany in May 2019.
Pad design and materials
The pad measures 240mm, has wings and comprises of three layers – a top to help guide fluid, a middle absorbent section, and a bottom protective layer. The top is traditionally made with polypropylene if it is non-woven, and polyethylene if it is perforated, and is not biodegradable. These have been replaced with a non-woven cornstarch-based bioplastic sourced from Germany and Austria. The bottom layer is typically polyethylene, which has been replaced with the cornstarch material.
For the absorbent core, a bio-non-woven, absorbent pinewood pulp is sourced from Canada and the USA. Commercial sanitary pads use super-absorbent polymers, made of sodium and potassium, which can have harmful effects on the body and are difficult to dispose of. The same bio-compostable plastic in the top layer is used to package the product.
According to the centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research, Vancouver, Canada, the average volume of fluid released during a menstrual cycle is 10–35mL and it can reach beyond 80mL, so we tried to make a pad that could absorb 40mL. A gynaecologist recommended a sanitary pad should not be used for more than four to six hours, as after that time there is a risk of bacteria growing and causing an infection. Sometimes this does not relate to the pad - there may be skin irritations and other challenges that cause this.
Locally sourced materials help lower the carbon footprint of the products and keep costs down. For instance, we are trialling other materials, particularly for the absorbent section, in different parts of the country. In Kolkata, India, we are trialling the use of jute, an absorbent and locally available wood pulp that would help reduce costs of importing materials from North American countries. We are also about to start testing bargasse-based materials in the western parts of India. Franchises exist in other countries including Cameroon, Kenya and Afghanistan. Water hyacinths, which are found in large lakes, are used to make the absorbent material in Kenya, while banana fibre is used in Uganda and South Africa.
The pinewood material comes in a large sheet, which is broken up by hand, pulverised, turned into flat pulp and then weighed so each pad has 6.5g. The material is placed into a base plate of four moulds and pressed in a manual hydraulic machine. The top sheet is rolled onto a flatbed over a semi-automated press, a waste-soluble gum is applied to the inner surface, then an absorbent layer is placed onto it. Another layer of gum is put on top to seal it. Finally, the bio-non-woven material is added. The machine seals all three layers together, cuts the pad into shape, and forms impressions into it to help channel and distribute fluid. The pad then sits in an ultraviolet machine to be sterilised for 30 minutes. Finally, groups of eight pads are packed by hand. A central lab performs regular tests on samples from the local groups to check for consistency, quality and to provide feedback.
The business premise behind Anandi builds upon the idea of local enterprise. Mini factories are owned, supervised and staffed by women who make the pads. This provides an opportunity for local women to be employed, learn entrepreneurial and marketing skills, and assume management roles within their communities.
I started a collaboration with the University of Sheffield, UK, as part of my MBA with Sife India in 2010. As time passed, the project evolved – our original partners had moved onto other projects, leaving it up to me to continue. By 2013, I had designed and developed the core of the pad and the machinery to make it.
Aakar supplies the production units, which are then operated by local groups. The units are owned either by the groups, or a non-governmental organisation (NGO) without major corporate sponsorship, or an individual entrepreneur. Aakar supplies the materials to the sites, provides the training to staff and makes sure the teams are working properly. The company also ensures the groups are able to sell the product in the local vicinity. The pads are sold through women-based channels in villages through door-to-door sales, or women-run small shops. A pack of eight pads costs INR40, or US$0.60.
Moving to automation
Aakar Innovations is looking to secure an automated machine, particularly for making pads for the urban market, within the next three months. Three fully automatic production machines are owned and operated by a partner company in Kerala, India, so Aakar is partnering with them for commercial purposes until we build our own machine. Through this process, we are able to produce about 300 pads per minute using the compostable materials. If synthetic materials were used, the production output would be about 700–1,000 pads, but the soft materials used cannot withstand those speeds from the machines.
Some of the challenges with the pads made by the semi-automatic machines is the final finish of the product, which can be imperfect. Removing manual handling will be a big key to developing the product, particularly in the urban market. The uniformity, look and feel is of higher importance in the urban market, so standardisation through mechanisation is of high value for future work. The local groups will continue using the current semi-automatic equipment for now.
Urban requirements also include having an ultra–thin pad with a length of 290mm, and one with a three-fold that could be carried in a purse. That posed a challenge of finding ultra-absorbent material usable at a very small size. For this product line, the top layer was replaced with cotton, but the central layer is still being improved. Aakar Innovations is in the process of launching that product with Amazon. A portion of the revenue from those sales will be used to give free pads to women and girls in the villages who cannot afford to buy the products.
Our work in India caught the attention of countries including Afghanistan, Uganda, South Africa and Cameroon. Through building a grassroots enterprise model, the thought process was to make this group a partner, train their people for a year and then they reciprocate that model within their own countries. The first two countries were Kenya and Uganda, and now we have units in Tanzania, South Africa and Nepal, and we are in process of setting up units in Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Cameroon. We were asked to set up a station in Nelson Mandela’s home town in honour of him as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations of his birth. Today we have 30 enterprises across India and the African continent.
A healthy option
Using fully compostable materials in sanitary pads means a more environmentally friendly product can be used to offer a dignified way for women to manage their menstrual cycles. We are pushing towards using locally sourced material so locals have the ability to make the products, giving them employment opportunities and boost the economy.
Jaydeep Mandal is Founder, Aakar Innovations, India