[Image above] University of Utah materials science and engineering student Amber Barron (left) and assistant professor Jeff Bates. Credit: Dan Hinson; University of Utah College of Engineering

We females in first-world countries tend to take a lot for granted. Take sanitary pads, for instance.

We buy ‘em, use ‘em, and then toss ‘em. Repeat next month. Most of us don’t give any thought to what happens to our, ahem, used pads, after their work is finished.

The average female uses more than 11,000 tampons over her lifetime, according to this Harvard Business School report. In addition, nearly 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons, and applicators end up in landfills each year in North America. And a report from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm analyzing the life cycle of the sanitary pad found that the disposables have a significant environmental impact.

And all this time we’ve been worried about water bottles!

Unfortunately, environmentally-conscious women have few alternatives, such as this thing or these.

So, it’s a good thing someone is thinking about this stuff. A team at the University of Utah recently developed a maxi pad that is made of all natural materials and is 100% biodegradable. The pad is thinner, super absorbent, and—more importantly—more comfortable than similar products on the market.

What started as an accidental spilling of rice in his kitchen led materials science and engineering assistant professor Jeff Bates to research rice hydration and dehydration. After experimenting with various materials, including banana leaves and cotton, Bates and his team came up with the perfect combination of materials for their biodegradable pad, called SHERO.

  • Outer layer of raw cotton to repel liquid
  • “Transfer” layer of organic cotton to absorb liquid from the outer layer
  • Super absorbent layer of agarose gel, made from brown algae
  • Moisture barrier layer to prevent leaks

SHERO’s four layers. Credit: Ashlea Patterson; University of Utah College of Engineering

SHERO takes between 45 days and 6 months to biodegrade. According to the university’s press release, the need for a biodegradable pad originated from SHEVA, a nonprofit in Guatemala that helps empower women through education, entrepreneurship, and professional growth. Guatemala has no public sanitation system, Bates explains in the release. “All the rivers are black because they are so polluted.”

Which makes the need for this product even more urgent in third-world countries that lack adequate sanitation. Bates says his team created the pad with materials that can be locally sourced in developing countries. And, being a product that does not require high-tech manufacturing processes, villages can mass-produce SHERO and sell it locally.

Other similar products on the market don’t contain the super absorbent agarose gel, making SHERO unique in its materials composition. Other similar products also “use thicker layers of natural cotton that are uncomfortable to wear,” Amber Barron, University of Utah materials science and engineering student and part of the research team, says in the release.

The team plans to start selling SHERO in the U.S. and Guatemala after the beta testing phase. “The product has been tested with women in the U.S. so far, but we are planning to start testing with women in Guatemala within the next two months,” Bates wrote in an email. “We already have an audience that is willing to provide feedback.”

An environmentally-friendly product plus a revenue-generator to help people in developing countries become self-sufficient—sounds like an idea that’s destined for success.