14 Jun 2018 Story Ecosystems

What all women should know to beat plastic pollution

In a remote village of the Himalayas, Kristin Kagetsu was struggling with a recipe. Not your average recipe for cooking up a delicious meal. This one was for making sustainable colored crayons. After trial and error, resulting in crayons of different shapes and sizes, Kagetsu finally hit on the right recipe and the crayons are still sold today.

But the experience taught her a valuable lesson: ingredients for truly sustainable products must be sourced locally. Fast-forward five years, and twenty-eight-year-old Kagetsu, now Chief Executive Officer of Saathi pads, has teamed up with co-founder, twenty-six-year-old Tarun Bothra, to turn their attention to a more pressing environmental and social problem.

Saathi pads co-founders Kirstin Kagetsu and Tarun Bothra. The "Saathi impact" globe was originally black: each green string represents one sold pack of their pads at an awareness raising exhibition. It was such a success they turned the whole globe green. Photo by: UN Environment / Georgina Smith

In India, 84 percent of women lack access to sanitary pads. Even among the few who use them, many do not have alternatives for reducing plastic waste. On average, every woman using sanitary pads contributes 60 kilograms of pad waste in her lifetime, generating 100,000 tons of waste annually.

“Women are forced to use rags, cloths and even mud to stem menstrual bleeding, which exposes them to a high risk of infection,” explained Brotha. “Improvised alternatives are uncomfortable, unreliable and not very absorbent, making a day at work or school while on a period very difficult to manage.”

Saathi pads set out to improve the lives of women without creating a negative environmental impact. Their pads are 100 percent biodegradable, made from banana fibers, which are strong, abundant and absorbent. Unlike wood pulp or cotton, banana fiber is an agricultural by-product, so it does not take up extra land. The pads do not contain bleach and use eco-friendly adhesive.

“People don’t understand why we are taking a biodegradable product into rural areas,” said Kagetsu. “But sanitary waste affects these communities more directly, because they are using the land to grow food. The waste seriously impacts what they drink and eat.”

In an unassuming factory building on the outskirts of a bustling city, a group of women are busy assembling the sanitary pads. Ahmedabad is an important economic and industrial hub in India, and among its fastest growing cities. To date, the company has made hundreds of thousands of pads from banana fibers which would otherwise go to waste.

 “We started off wanting to give women better access to sanitary pads, but realized that this is only a part of the solution,” explained Bothra. “We’re trying to build a sustainable future: we’re already ahead of the trend. The environment is part of our value chain. We don’t want to harm any part of our value chain,” he said.     

Saathi pads aims to increase access to sanitary pads for 1.5 million women by 2023. Photo by: UN Environment / Georgina Smith

“Plastic pads take hundreds of years to degrade, and worse, are frequently burned generating toxic fumes including carbon dioxide,” noted Bothra. “As sanitary pad usage increases in India, access to affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic pads is essential. The pads degrade within three to six months of disposal – 1,200 times faster than conventional pads,” he said.

The pads are also competitively priced. Commercial plastic pads can cost up to 27 cents per pad. Other eco-friendly versions sell for between 52 to 80 cents per pad. Saathi pads retail at 30 cents per pad. “Some products claim to be biodegradable, but they are not 100 percent so”, said Bothra. “Others may use organic cotton for one layer, but still contain plastic and other chemicals.”  

Saathi pads launched sales in 2017 and currently, sells their pads on their website. Soon they will be available in supermarkets. Currently, the company is using sales to subsidize pads for rural women, who live in areas where menstruation is still a taboo subject.

The Saathi pads team. Photo by: UN Environment / Georgina Smith

In many rural communities, one in six women still miss about a month of work each year due to lack of access to modern feminine hygiene products. Saathi pads have already reached thousands of women and aim to increase access to sanitary pads for 1.5 million women by 2023.

Kagetsu points out that sanitary products are a necessity not an option for millions of women. “If we can make a dent here, this will have a long-term impact for the foreseeable future for women using sustainable pads, and for the environment,” she said.

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