Alum’s Banana Fiber Menstrual Pads Offer Accessible Solution to Girls and Women in India
Photo courtesy of Team Saukhyam
Disposable menstrual products radically changed women’s lives when they were introduced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, replacing the cloth, moss, animal fur and other materials women had relied on for centuries and making menstrual hygiene a cleaner, simpler affair.
Now, Anju Bist MBA ’98 is hoping to foment the next period revolution in her native India and around the world: the first reusable, sustainable pads made from the fiber of banana trees. They also happen to be affordable and effective.
In India, where Bist is managing director of the nonprofit Saukhyam Reusable Pads, disposable menstrual products are unattainable for many women and girls in rural areas.
Often, girls in small towns skip school on the days they’re bleeding or drop out entirely. Also, the cloth, leaves or even cow dung used in lieu of pads or tampons breed medical issues; 28% of women in India are diagnosed with cervical cancer, which is linked to unhygienic menstruation management.
Another matter: Tampons and pads are a disaster for the planet. One person’s periods can result in up to 15,000 landfilled pads or tampons over their lifetime, and hundreds of pounds of plastic wrap and applicators. The products can take 800 years to decompose and create 200,000 metric tons of waste yearly.
After earning an MBA at Maryland, Bist returned to India, where she and colleagues at the NGO Mata Amritanandamayi Math, the parent organization of Saukhyam, eventually began considering what they could do to make safe menstrual products more widely available. Most disposable pads are made with cellulose fiber from tree bark, which necessitates cutting down living trees.
Bist and her team turned to an alternative source. India is the world’s largest banana producer, and, unlike an apple tree or mango tree, banana trees bear fruit once and are cut down–agricultural waste that the team realized could become a valuable product.
Saukhyam’s pads, which don’t have adhesive, are worn with wings. Users can clean them by soaking them in cold water for a few minutes, lightly washing with soap and then letting them air-dry. They’ll even stand up to a machine wash, said Bist.
After developing the pads around 2015, Saukhyam, which means “happiness and well-being” in Sanskrit, built production centers in rural India and hired local women to work in them. It gave away pads for free to introduce the product, and now sells them at cost around the country. International online orders, which cost roughly $5 for a pack of four, subsidize the lower-cost pads sold in India.
Known as “the pad woman of India,” Bist estimates that Saukhyam has sold and distributed more than 500,000 pads, saving some 43,750 tons of non-biodegradable menstrual waste. Earlier this year, the Government of India honored Bist with a “Women Transforming India” award.
“Our planet does not have enough resources for us to take, make, use and throw (away), and keep doing that endlessly,” she said. “Disposable sanitary napkins are 90% plastic, so they will become known as the bad idea that they are.”
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