A Sustainable Sanitary Pad Is Here to Save the Planet From Millions of Pounds of Pollution

Tanya Edwards
Photo: Dan Hixson, University of Utah College of Engineering

A cool new option for ecologically responsible period protection is here — and it was invented by college students.

At the University of Utah, a team of students led by Jeff Bates, a materials science and engineering assistant professor, have developed a 100 percent biodegradable maxi pad. The SHERO Pad begins with a processed form of algae as its superabsorbent ingredient. That processed algae is then covered with cotton and the same material that makes up tea bags.

In the United States, there are more than 85 million women of menstruating age, and according to Menstruation.com, they contribute approximately 12 billion pads and 7 million tampons to landfills every year. According to a 2016 Harvard Business School report, nearly 20 billion sanitary pads, tampons, and plastic applicators are dumped into landfills every year, and it takes centuries for them to biodegrade inside plastic bags.

An added bonus of the new biodegradable pads is that they’re much slimmer than other options on the market, thanks to the plant. “Most are really bulky because they don’t have a superabsorbent layer,” Amber Barron, a junior in materials science and engineering who is on the team of students, said in a release from the school.

Graphic courtesy University of Utah

Made up of four layers, the pad has an outer layer of raw cotton similar to a tea bag, a transfer layer of organic cotton to absorb the liquid and pull it from the outer layer, a superabsorbent layer made of agarose gel (a polymer from brown algae), and a final layer made of a corn-based material that keeps the moisture inside and prevents leakage.

The drive to make period protection smarter has been steadily rising over the past few years, and young companies are attempting to address women’s needs in innovative new ways.

For example, the Beautiful First Period Kit ($20) includes “supplies, a little guidance, and a whole lot of love,” according to inventor and momtrepreneur Helen Walsh. Neatly tucked inside the beautifully packaged case are tampons, pads, feminine wipes, and disposable bags. The company stocks each kit with period care essentials that are hypoallergenic and nontoxic as well as BPA-, phthalate-, lead-, and paraben-free.

And then there’s Thinx, the washable period underwear meant to replace tampons, which Yahoo Beauty took for a test drive (with mixed results).

The students originally developed the SHERO Pad for people in developing countries such as Guatemala (which has no public sanitation system). However, they will also start selling the product in the U.S. A working prototype has been produced, and the group has launched a startup company based in Bountiful, Utah. They hope to see their product on shelves stateside and handed out in developing countries within the year.

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