Thursday, March 24, 2011

Limit disposables, period.

Menstruation. It’s not a wound. It’s a discharge, bearing resemblance to tears, snot, urine, sweat, etc. in that it is
• usually normal, i.e., not infected/infectious,
• generally not remarkably copious,
• potentially inconvenient, and so seldom enthusiastically received,
and its exhibition is mostly socially undesirable.

The differences between menstrual and the other discharges (ibid.) are
• the composition,
• the disconcerting resemblance of menstrual flow to “blood”, i.e., the discharge consequent on injury, and
• the demographic restriction – menstruation occurs only in women, only in the reproductive phase lasting 3 or so decades, and that only in the absence of pregnancy, lactation, undernutrition or severe disease.

Why the fuss?
It has to do with “private parts”, of women, that too women in the reproductive phase of their lives. It may be interpreted as an advertisement of sorts of suitability for procreation. Of course, there’s a fuss about it. Is it realistic to expect everyone to treat this normal biological process like a normal biological process?
The answer to that is ‘No’.
An indication of the coyness surrounding menstruation is the list of euphemisms for it – out of doors, chums, monthly test, that time of the month, not clean, etc. Not to forget the quaint enquiry often made of female guests who land up at religious-tinted functions: “Are you fresh?” If you fail this test, you get to eat but not pray. Don’t you just love it?!

Normal biological processes... What’s left? Puberty? Pregnancy? Childbirth? Menopause? Ageing? A sneeze or a cough? None of the above. Modern science has medicalised most bodily functions to the point where they are “symptoms”, “conditions” or “disorders” calling for treatment/management/even hospitalisation. E.g. “We’re trying to find a cure for ageing.”
So, menstruation is a recurring “condition” requiring attention of the medical kind, at the very least hygienic napkins.

A word on hygiene here. It means healthy living – yes, more than just over-enthusiastic washing and repeated wiping with sanitisers. A balanced diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep and more along these lines, all fit into hygiene.
But back to the conventionally understood meaning of hygienic – CLEAN.
And clean to the point of antiseptic, pure, free from any physical, chemical and biological foreign agent. Say, sterilised. Say disposable, because any level of washing we might do at home cannot possibly leave a napkin truly clean. Say, pure white, because white means ultra clean, doesn’t it? Can you think of anything white that’s not good for you?
Now how did we get to the point where we feel that we need disposable, white, sterilised napkins because anything else wouldn’t be hygienic enough? Did, perhaps, napkin manufacturers have anything to do with this?

How clean does a sanitary (there’s the reference to high-level cleaning again!) napkin really have to be? Remember it’s not a surgical wound, a burn or a rash. It’s a discharge. It needs to be handled in as clean a manner as other discharges that don’t ring alarm bells. In other words, a napkin needs to be as clean as a handkerchief or underwear. That’s all. You don’t need a sterilised napkin unless you need a sterilised panty.

What’s the truth about commercially available disposable napkins?
• They’re hugely convenient. Carry them around progressively more discreetly. Peel and stick – no athleticism required. They’re getting drier and drier with every successive innovation, so they’re fairly comfortable. You get various lengths, widths and different thicknesses, and wings and perfumes if desired.
• They’re hugely inconsiderate of the environment. They’re made of absorbent material, usually wood pulp, which comes from, yes, wood. Some contain cotton. Most contain hi-tech materials that prevent leakage while keeping you extraordinarily dry. Now, what might be leakproof, light, flexible and smooth to the touch? Could it be or contain plastic?
Plastics are extremely eco-profligate materials, making dents in environmental security in the extraction of their raw materials (mostly petroleum), their manufacture (consuming many times their volume of fresh water), their use (including transportation), and their disposal (dumping, burning, incineration, even recycling, which requires energy for the industrial process and finally salvages only a small proportion of the material). In a nutshell, the entire life-cycle of most plastics is one of eco-hostility.
• The clean, sterile, white napkin is bleached and pressed and so forth to achieve its looks and function. Strong chemicals come into play. There are permissible limits for the various compounds that appear in sanitary pads. Permissible limits? As in things not healthy in amounts large, medium or small, but bearable in tiny, tiny concentrations to facilitate some desirable property? Yes.
But the manufacturers will ensure that their products are perfectly safe, won’t they? And even if they default, the government will strictly ensure that consumers are completely protected, won’t it? Santa Claus is a verifiable occurrence, isn’t he?
• Be all that as it may, convenience rules. You’ve used the disposable napkin. Now for disposal. It’s not segregable into recyclable, compostable, reject and “medical/hazardous”. Of course, it’s not segregable. It’s hardly even visible. It just goes incognito to the toilet drain which it clogs; or to the garbage dump where a part of it rots, somewhat, and provides a home for pests and germs, and a morsel for stray animals; or it gets burnt in a dump; or, the best fate under the circumstances, goes undisturbed to a landfill (Find one in India that fulfils all the criteria for a safe landfill!) and stays there forever (like we have real estate to spare for the never-ending supply of used napkins).

Am I trying to put you on a guilt trip? Not exactly. But if the shoe fits, wear it. We’ve got to recognise our part,... and do our part.

What’s the alternative?
Reusable napkins, made of cloth. If any other material comes to mind, please publicise.
The usual reaction to this suggestion: Yuck!

Why ‘yuck’?
Cloth gets stained.
Yes, it does. So?
Most of the underwear-using world is familiar with stains. Well-timed and intelligent washing usually obviates stains. One quick wash immediately after use and another leisurely one – in a machine with other cloth(e)s – work admirably. Some stains make it despite people’s efforts to discourage them. So, let them be. Dispose of the stained cloth after numerous uses if you must.
Cloth pads are amenable to myriad thicknesses, lengths and widths as the period of your period dictates. The flexibility in use, and the tactile comfort are great, and you can add and subtract layers at will.
Any soft cotton cloth will serve. But there are some cottons that are perfect for the purpose – like the soft towelling material that’s sold for baby linens. They’re unbelievably soft on the skin, very absorbent, and wash stain-free. They’re meant for ever-discharging babies, after all.
It’s a pain to wash.
True. But just about. Set aside 2 minutes more at each change than you would have discarding a disposable pad.
You need your own space for all this.
You do. This is not easy to achieve in hostels and shared cramped quarters. And certainly not on long trips without convenient washing and drying zones.
It’s embarrassing.
Is it? Think another think about the people who’ll get embarrassed/ embarrass you by glimpsing your washed, drying cloths. Are they worth the bother?
It’s old-fashioned.
Yes. With good reason. It has worked – well, for centuries.
It’s infra-dig – the kind of thing underprivileged women use.
Yes and no. They use cloth; that’s where the resemblance ends. They don’t always have clean cloth; they don’t always get to wash pads thoroughly and dry them fully before reuse. Some unlucky women don’t even have cloth to spare for this: They use dirty rags and often share them with others.
It’s unhygienic.
No. Not if the cloth is washed and dried thoroughly, with as much attention as underwear gets. Women who use dirty cloth, or worse, are known to suffer infections and chronic unhealthy pelvic conditions leading many to surgeries to excise their reproductive organs. Women who use clean cloth need not suffer any of this.
In addition, women with limited economic resources may be constrained to use cloth, and are in the process, avoiding adding their used pads to the ever-growing continent of garbage. Those with more comfortable spending capacity save themselves the bother of washing and reusing and give the earth the bother of dealing with their leftovers.

Itna lecture maara. Do I use cloth?
I do, almost always. Long trips, etc. excluded.

Would I like you to?
I would.
Try it. At least think about it. Period.

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