“Sometimes sanitary waste is not even covered”- waste pickers. Make their lives easier with Svacch bags

25th Aug 2015
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Anisha Nichani did her Masters in Fashion Retail and loved her job at a leading clothes brand as a buyer. Her job was to handle buying and merchandising for about 20 stores across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When she was about to get married, she decided to take a break and quit, because her job didn’t allow her to take the desired time off. Post her wedding, she couldn’t find a job that excited her enough. With the love for retail still alive and kicking, and the desire to give back to the society strong, the seed of entrepreneurship had the most favourable conditions to sprout in. And it did. Svacch was born.

Love for retail and the desire to give back

Anisha says,

Since I love retail, I chose to do something that would add value to multiple links in the chain of getting the product from the manufacturer to the consumer. The end consumer of Svacch bags, for me, is not the customer buying it, but the waste handlers who handle our sanitary waste. Even educated people sometimes don’t take responsibility for the manner in which they dispose their sanitary waste. Hence, I chose to do something focussed purely on the disposal of sanitary napkins.


Svacch High Res (1)

Svacch is a Chennai-based initiative that aims to improve hygiene and sanitation levels at dumping grounds and standardise the way Indian women dispose their sanitary waste. This also helps underprivileged women find a livelihood and gives waste pickers some relief. Svacch makes bio-degradable bags from recycled newspaper for the purpose of disposing used sanitary napkins. All bags are made by underprivileged women, and a portion of the revenue is set aside to provide free sanitary napkins to the ladies who have little or no access to them. Svacch works with Helping Hands, a vocational programme at the Guild of Service (an NGO), Egmore, Chennai, where underprivileged women make these bags.

Ghastly numbers

Svacch High Res (2)
The impact written right on the bag

It is common knowledge that people often flush soiled sanitary products down the toilets/drains, which leads to clogging. Sometimes napkins are disposed in waste bins without a cover. Anisha says, “It’s an ugly and pitiful sight when we see street dogs rummaging in these bins.” Anisha spoke to waste pickers in and around her residence, who usually, segregate waste with their bare hands.

They were disgusted! Most of them in my area are men and they just feel extremely disgusted with the way in which sanitary waste is often disposed. The soiled pads are not even wrapped in a cover or mixed with other waste

,says Anisha. It is also well known that with prolonged exposure, the waste handlers at dumping grounds are prone to a spectrum of diseases caused by bacteria and virus that thrive on these soiled pads.

Svacch’s Facebook page brings attention to the problem with these statistics: 95 Indian waste pickers at a dump site were studied by the WHO, and the findings were alarming – 80% had eye problems, 73% had respiratory ailments, 51% had gastrointestinal ailments, and 40% had skin infections and allergies.

Anisha says that the very first advantage that the Svacch bags provide is that they help the waste pickers and segregators avoid direct touch. Secondly, since the bag is sealed, there is a vastly reduced chance of the pads becoming breeding grounds for diseases and allergies. The bags also come in very handy for women during travel. Anisha adds, “By getting our bags made by lesser-privileged women, we are also creating a sense of responsibility among them. They are also learning to handle their sanitary waste properly because, by now, they know the importance.”

The league of extraordinary women

Other than the women who make the bags, and a few women employed at the office, the team is literally, in-house: Anisha’s mother-in-law helps in packing the bags after Anisha does the quality assessment. Her parents, who run a small beauty store called Prisha in Alsa Mall, Egmore, also stock the bags. The bags are priced at Rs. 20/- for a pack of 10 bags.

Women at the office, packing the bags.
Women at the office, packing the bags.

Is the word spreading?

Anisha with her mother in law
Anisha with her mother in law

Anisha says that the concept has definitely picked up. At Prisha (her parent’s store), they have some loyalists of the bags already. She says that Svacch is now also retailing at a franchise of Nilgiris (a supermarket chain), where the product has gained popularity. Svacch has been getting corporate orders as well. She adds, “I even have customers from Delhi and Hyderabad who give us repeat orders for their personal use. I am looking for more points of sale so that I get more visibility. The established retail beauty chains are ideal for us; I’m working on getting the product out there.”

Since visibility is one of the goals she’s working on, I ask her the obvious – why not retail on digital platforms like Flipkart, Amazon, etc? She quips,

Because of the pricing. We cannot afford a margin to the portal and take care of shipping. The costing doesn’t work for us. And if we price it higher than Rs. 20/- for 10 bags, we won’t have customers!

Challenges

Awareness is a challenge, understandably, since the business’s premise is based on the ignorance of proper disposal methods for sanitary waste. Anisha says that people of certain communities don’t want to use these bags made of newspaper because of the belief that newspaper is knowledge and they cannot use it for disposing waste. “Some people ask me why the product is so expensive, when it is just made out of old newspaper?! That question makes me laugh and cry at the same time, because I have no answer to give to people who cannot understand the effort behind the endeavour in terms of time, patience and physical strain,” says Anisha. Another immediate challenge confronting them is their inability to get into more supermarket and pharmacy chains at this point of time.

Hoping for better lives

Anisha says that her biggest aim is to reduce the difficulty in handling sanitary waste for the waste handlers. “We are currently trying to reach the maximum number of people with the hope that the issue of making the dumping grounds more hygienic is addressed, and the waste pickers get a better environment to operate in. I also want Svacch to be recognised as a household requirement.”

There is an awakening of sorts in the field of menstrual hygiene, and waste disposal. Be it Aditi Gupta (of Menstrupedia) who is spreading awareness, Urmila Chanam’s work in helping rural women understand menstruation, Ahmedabad based eco-friendly sanitary Saathi pads, and now Svacch; Indian women are certainly on their way to revolutionizing this space.

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