DAVANGERE: Once considered a taboo topic to discuss in public, the way Indians now think about menstruation has seen a paradigm shift in recent years. The National Family Health Survey reveals that close to 50 per cent of women in the 15-24 age group still use cloth for menstrual protection. It is a health risk if an uncleaned cloth is reused as it could lead to several infections.
But then are non-biodegradable sanitary pads the solution? You use them, roll them and then chuck them away. What happens to them? Where is their final resting place? According to a study conducted by the Indian government, 121 million women use sanitary napkins in the country, and multiply that by eight pads per cycle, it is 1 billion pads per month and a staggering 12 billion pads each year which take hundreds of years to decompose. The disposal of such plastic napkins has become a big matter of concern in the country and across the world.
But there is a group of warriors fighting this menace. There is a quiet revolution going on among biotechnology students of BIET, Davanagere, who are producing sanitary napkins using areca husks.
Dr NS Manjunath, head of biotechnology department and a graduate in MSc inmicrobiology from Kalaburagi University, is the man behind this innovation. He has been taking up research in this field which has prompted his students to take up the challenge of producing napkins and diapers from biodegradable raw material.
The napkins cost Rs 4.80 a piece now, and if manufactured in bulk, the cost is expected to plunge which will help women in rural areas maintain their menstrual hygiene.The project is at present supported by the New Age Incubation Network of the state government. The affordable eco-friendly napkins can not just help fight pollution, but also generate employment.
Girls in rural areas often use old clothes made of cotton or wool or a combination of both to manage menstrual bleeding. Studies indicate that girls who know about commercial sanitary pads prefer them, but for many, such pads are unavailable or unaffordable. These pads, when flushed, swell up after absorbing moisture and block drains, which is a global problem. Also, used sanitary pads may contain hepatitis and HIV viruses, which can live up to six months.
“Our sanitary napkins are made out of natural fibres. This technology uses bio-active material of plant origin which also has anti-microbial properties,” Dr Manjunath says.So how are these eco-friendly pads made? First, areca husks are collected from dumpyards and tested for quality. The husk is soaked in water so that it can be easily separated into hard and soft fibres which is washed with water to remove mud and other dirt.
Then, the fibre is treated with chemicals following standard protocols, and bleached to change its colour from brown to creamish white. It is then washed again with acetone and left to dry. After this, carding of the fibres is done to make them smooth. To study its effectiveness, the students conducted blood absorption test. The locally -made pads won with absorption capacity of 30 ml, as against 26 ml for branded napkins.
The areca napkins were sent to the SS Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Davanagere, for antimicrobial test and the results showed that there was no growth of microbes in the napkins. Bhoomika V Bhat from Sringeri, a student, told TNSE, “As menstrual hygiene in rural areas is not up to the mark, we decided to find a solution. Areca husk fibre came to our mind and we used it as the base material for the pads.”
Areca husk diapers
In another unit, students Raghavendra RB, AM Nuthan, Basavaraj Rajendra Patil, Ojas M Bhargav and Darshan Totad have developed adult diapers and bandages using natural fibres drawn from areca husk. The Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology is supporting the project which has been selected for state-level presentation at VTU, Belagavi.
They said, “Husks are cooked and the water content is removed. The husk is then treated with a white concoction which contains sodium sulphite, sodium hydroxide and sodium carbonate and then they are sent into a disintegrator to prepare the pulp.”
This pulp is bleached with sodium hypochlorite, caustic lye and chlorine dioxide for an yellowish-white colour. This enhances the softness mildly, and they are rolled into sheets. The diapers are made using super absorbent sheets and spreadsheets along with cotton pads. Diapers and bandages are assembled in alternate layers of super absorbent sheets covering the areca sheet which is covered by spreadsheets and dressing sheets. The diapers cost around `40-`50 at present, they said.