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Small is NOT Beautiful

The sight of these wall-mounted appliances resembling post boxes inside or outside girls’ toilets is now becoming common. These are small incinerators used for burning sanitary pads.

They help manage this waste more hygienically as it turns into inert ash at the point of generation without requiring any manual handling. But is this seemingly hygienic solution really safe, what do they emit while burning, is the ash really inert?

Small incinerators are machines designed to burn waste at temperatures much lower than what is mandated as per the Rules. Schedule II of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 stipulates a minimum temperature of 950 degree Celsius in an incinerator. However, these small set ups, often made of brick or metal, typically operate at around 300-500 degrees C.

But why is burning waste at low temperatures not a good idea?

When waste is burnt at low temperatures, high levels of particulates, acid gases, heavy metal vapours, carbon monoxide, dioxins, and other toxins are released, some of which are carcinogenic. These pollutants can cause very serious human health problems. One of the most harmful pollutants released during backyard burning of trash is dioxin. Dioxin is a known carcinogen and is also associated with birth defects. Dioxin can be inhaled directly or deposited on soil, water and crops where it becomes part of the food chain.

Not only should the burning temperature be high, it must also be uniform, which requires proper mixing of material and continuous turbulence to ensure equal amounts of heat reaches everywhere. This can be achieved either through mechanical systems that keep moving/shaking the material or through air flow. None of these can happen in small scale incinerators as these mechanisms would be very expensive to install and operator in small scale set up. It is also important that the high chamber temperature of 950 deg C be reached through electricity or through burning of an alternate fuel and not by burning waste. Several small incinerators typically generate heat by burning waste. The SWM Rules also require proper pollution containment measures through scrubbers, tall chimneys etc. All of these are also absent in small scale incinerators due to cost factors. The ash generated must be disposed of in sanitary landfills but when installed in schools there is no mechanism to handle this ash which is highly toxic.

What has been the experience?

Small incinerators are heavily promoted as disposable pads are reaching even remote corners where there are no systems of handling this waste. The machines themselves have seen high rates of failure due to improper operations and poor maintenance. There have also been complaints of air pollution and health hazards for the operators of these machines. In a large-scale study carried out in Tanzania, it was found that more than 50% of these have defects (1).

Why aren’t they banned?

The Sanitary Waste management guidelines allow small incinerators but they allow it for pure cellulose based ones and not for the present day plastic-lined, chemical loaded ones. The new age pads have a sizable percentage of plastic gels in them that expand when they come in contact with fluids. The government must come up with the revised guidelines and proper destination to address this waste. Information about alternative, sustainable options such as the menstrual cup and cloth pads should be made widely accessible. Commercial plastic lined pads are best managed in large scale biomedical waste management facilities. The transportation and handling cost must be supported by the sanitary pad producers, this will ensure they create products which are environment-friendly at all three stages- production, usage and disposal. There is also an urgent need to come up with clear guidelines of small incinerators, design and operations and they must also be monitored regularly by an authorised agency(2)

This blog is by Sowmya Raghavan (Member, SWMRT) support by Divya Tiwari (Member, SWMRT)


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