Edmonton students pushing for waste-free menstrual products

Hempact, a student-run startup in Edmonton, is developing a pad made of hemp fibres and biodegradable plastics and adhesives to curb period-related waste.

Hempact is developing biodegradable pads as part of a growing trend to curb waste

Anka Chan (left) and Nicole Sanchez (middle) are getting ready to launch the first prototype of Hempact's biodegradable pad in December. (Western University and Nicole Sanchez)

A group of student entrepreneurs at the University of Alberta has a vision: waste-free menstrual products.

Hempact, a student-run startup in Edmonton, is developing a pad made of hemp fibres, biodegradable plastics, and adhesives to curb period-related waste.

"We are moving towards a bigger shift towards not using plastic," said Nicole Sanchez, Hempact's project manager. "Not only is [Hempact] more sustainable, it's also a product you can easily transition to."

The average woman in North America throws away about 113 to 136 kilograms of pads, tampons and applicators in her lifetime, according to Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation.

That's why women might prefer Hempact's pads to The DivaCup, a reusable silicone cup for menstruation, Sanchez said.

"If you're used to using conventional pads, you don't have to change your habits," the 22-year-old said.

Nicole Sanchez, Hempact's project manager, says the biodegradable pad will be convenient for women to use. (Ivy Diep)

Five women started Hempact after winning an innovation competition hosted by the Clean Energy Technology Centre in 2017.

The team then moved to Enactus, a startup hub at the University of Alberta that pairs student entrepreneurs with industry professionals and professors. 

After two years of research and development, Hempact is close to completing the first iteration of their pad. 

Anka Chan, who leads Hempact's research and development, said the team is aiming for a prototype in December.

The team is aware that biodegradable materials still end up in landfills, Chan said, so she's consulting with experts to ensure Hempact's pads break down after being tossed out.

"We have those types of resources available, and it'll truly allow us to focus on the biodegradability aspect as we develop our final product," she said.

Hempact isn't the only group fighting for a waste-free Edmonton. 

The city is considering a ban on single-use plastic products and other disposable materials, like bags, straws and take-out containers, as early as January 2021, according to a report released Tuesday.

Coun. Ben Henderson said there's significant public support in Edmonton for phasing out waste.

"People are shifting," Henderson said.

Anka Chan is in charge of research and development at Hempact. Chan says having an environmentally-friendly menstrual product on campus will shape how female students think about sustainability. (Ivy Diep)

Startups, like Hempact, will have a larger impact if the city introduces rules supporting environmentally-friendly waste management, the councillor said.

"If we come up with the kind of bylaw changes that have been down in other municipalities … we'll really be able to go that final mile," he said.

"I'm excited we've got this far."

Suzanne Dennis runs the Boomerang Bags Edmonton Chapter, a volunteer-run organization committed to arming Edmontonians with reusable grocery bags. 

She's in favour of local groups trying to eliminate waste, like Hempact.

"Even one small thing like that, I think, we can get rid of tonnes of single-use plastics," Dennis said.

"We're so used to having all of this plastic, but honestly, I think as long as people have alternatives, it won't be such a scary thing."

Chan hopes the shift to sustainable feminine hygiene products will make periods easier for young women who care about the environment.

"Knowing that there is this environmentally-friendly option for menstrual products on campus will help start to shape a little bit of what university women think of sustainability," Chan said. 

"That definitely reflects how the city is changing for the better."


Anya Zoledziowski is an award-winning multimedia journalist who joined CBC Edmonton after reporting on hate crimes targeting Indigenous women in the US for News21, an investigative journalism fellowship based in Phoenix, AZ.


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