Students in Kerala, India, found a creative way to turn weeds into sustainable sanitary pads this school year.
In October 2018, 10th-grade girls from Ahammed Kurikkal Memorial Higher Secondary School entered the National Children Science Competition. The competition asked participants to consider science, technology, and innovation for a “clean, green, and healthy nation.” Under the mentorship of biology teacher Sarath KS, the students created a sanitary pad that can absorb water 12 times more than a regular sanitary pad.
Following the competition’s “waste to wealth” theme, the students are awaiting a patent for their products, and plan to sell them at an affordable price: 3 rupees ( about 4 cents USD). They’ve since won several accolades at various national science fairs.
“With this one innovation, we are solving two problems – managing water hyacinth waste and providing eco-friendly solution to women and girls,” Sarath told Banega Swachh India.
In India, only 12% of people who get periods have access to sanitary products, leaving the rest to use unsafe materials like rags and sawdust as an alternative, the Indian ministry of health reported. With their affordable sanitary pads, the girls at Ahammed Kurikkal Memorial Higher Secondary School are hoping to change that.
To make the pads, the students decided to use water hyacinth, an invasive plant that multiplies rapidly and forms a dense layer over the aquatic surface of ponds, lakes, and rivers, making it impossible for aquatic life to thrive. Students Henna, Aswathi, and Sreejesh worked with environmentalist Khadeeja Nargees to find the weeds in nearby ponds and test them back at their school lab.
Suhani Jalota, the founder of Myna Mahila Foundation, a Mumbai-based women empowerment NGO, is excited by the prospect of sanitary pads made of water hyacinth. Jalota’s organization trains women to manufacture and sell affordable sanitary pads. She’s found that in urban slums, disposable sanitary solutions are more feasible than reusable ones. People who have periods in this community may not have water access to wash reusable pads regularly, and stigma around periods prevents them from drying the products in public.
The students needed to look into how sanitary pads are used to move forward with the process. They surveyed 100 households and found that 97% rely on plastic-based sanitary pads, according to Sarath. Their research revealed that 48% of people burn used pads and 11% flush them. Burning sanitary pads exposes people to toxic chemicals that negatively affect their health and the environment.
“The findings made it more crucial for us to produce biodegradable pads and make everyone switch to it,” Sarath told Banega Swachh India.
Conventional sanitary pads contain as much plastic as about four plastic bags. One plastic that is industrially manufactured for disposable sanitary pads requires about 500–800 years to decompose, according to Medium. In India 432 million sanitary products are generated annually, with the potential to cover landfills spread over 59 acres that contribute to harmful pollution and drive climate change.
Local health experts and sanitary pad manufacturers advised the students on how to construct more sustainable alternatives. They started out by collecting, cleaning, cutting, and sterilizing water hyacinth stalks. To create an absorbent layer, they then blended the water hyacinth with cotton and sealed everything together with beeswax and UV sterilization.
“While the current absorption capacity of pads is already very high and leakage in modern napkins is not as much of a problem, the benefits around managing disposal and cost seem to be the biggest advantages of this product,” Jalota told Global Citizen.
The young scientists are just starting to make an impact on the environment and the menstrual equity movement. Kerala’s government asked them to be a part of Kudumbashree, a three-year startup entrepreneurship program where they’ll continue finding innovative ways to support their community.