There’s been a wave of new options for people who menstruate — period cups, period underwear, organic cotton tampons. But none quite met the bar for biomedical engineer Rashmi Prakash. She was frustrated with having to pick between her “own well-being and the well-being of the planet.”
All the options required trade-offs. Period cups, while reusable, still end up in landfills and incorrect use can dislodge an IUD. Period underwear also winds up in the garbage. Single-use products like tampons and pads create massive amounts of waste (one estimate puts the number of pads used throughout a person’s lifetime at 11,400). And, according to an analysis commissioned by Environmental Health News and Mamavation, many period products, including period underwear and pads and tampons advertised as organic, contained PFAS. These “forever chemicals” have been linked to reduced fertility and increased risk of certain cancers, and were found in 65 percent of period underwear, 22 of the 46 brands of pads and liners tested, and 22 percent of the 23 tampon products tested.
Prakash, who is now an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia, started chatting with her friend Lanna Last about the lack of options while they were both in graduate school. They soon started experimenting to create a product that would be sustainable for those who preferred using pads — disposable options are particularly important for those who don’t have access to clean water to sanitize cups or period underwear.
The first challenge was finding the right material. When the duo started, mycelium was all the rage, but they realized it grew too slowly to be truly sustainable. So they turned to other materials: recycled cardboard, algae, bamboo, cotton. But every one had issues, ranging from harmful chemicals to unethical production. Finally, they found an option that was abundant and safe. “Food waste has fibres — there’s a lot of useful material but people just throw away plant matter when it doesn’t look appealing to them,” says Prakash. “It was ending up in the landfill alongside menstrual products. So we decided to try and conquer two issues in one go.”
The company sources food waste from local businesses, like juice stores, and farmers. “We are also able to incorporate this byproduct into our packaging as well which allows all of our processes to be fully circular,” adds Prakash.
Prakash and Last launched Aruna Revolution in 2021, and in two years have created a compostable material, built a prototype, and placed as finalists in the Novel Technologies Stream for the Food Waste Reduction Challenge, providing $450,000 to test their technology. (The winner, to be announced early next year, will receive $1 million to develop their technology.)
Prakash and her team worked with a composting engineer to understand how to create a compostable product. That taught her vital lessons, like using nonwoven material because it breaks down faster than woven ones. After creating more than 50 variations of materials the team made something that met their safety and environmental requirements. Their second prototype was tested by the Regenerative Waste Lab in Vancouver, proving the product was compostable.
Many companies use the label biodegradable, says Prakash, which doesn’t say anything about how long a product takes to break down, or whether there are harmful elements released in the breakdown. “Biodegradable has become this massive greenwashing term because a lot of plastics are biodegradable, and they turn into microplastics, which is not good for the Earth,” she explains.
But Prakash also recognizes companies want to move in the right direction — there just haven’t been great options available for compostable materials for period products. She hopes Aruna Revolution can change that by selling its own product to consumers, while also offering it to existing companies to white-label.
The growth potential of a compostable pad might be obvious to anyone who uses period products — Prakash regularly gets asked where her product can be purchased. But she sees a segment of the population that isn’t well-informed about the problem she’s trying to solve. That’s why she devotes an entire lecture in her biomedical engineering course to menstruation. “I do this little quiz at the beginning, and it shows just how little men actually know about it.”
She’s seen how that lack of knowledge can translate into a lack of understanding of the opportunity for growth in this space. The company is gearing up to raise funds and Prakash has already been in touch with many accelerators. In an initial introduction meeting, she and Last were on a virtual call with eight men that quickly became “very condescending.” The sentiment seemed to be “it happens every month, people have been dealing with it for so long, it doesn’t seem like that big of an issue,” recalls Prakash.
“It’s definitely a very interesting process trying to navigate this industry and finding the people that are the right fit for you,” she says. “There are people who challenge the way you think, but not necessarily in a good way.” She uses the example of suggestions for the company to scrap its plan to manufacture locally and instead to off-shore to China. Prakash doesn’t want to mess with the company’s mission: “We want to be uncompromising with our sustainability.”
Prakash is gearing up to certify the product for compostability and to test its gynaecological safety. Once that’s completed, the company will conduct a user trial of Aruna Revolution’s first industrially-manufactured pad later this year. Prakash hopes to have the pads for sale next year — after all, there’s already a waitlist.
Aruna Revolution is one of 10 companies in the RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator. Meet the other innovators in the accelerator program here.
Photo credit: Aruna Revolution