Sanitary towels from biodegradable plastics made from starch and clay – this was the project launched by Simavi, media and communications agency RedOrange, Rodenburg Biopolymers, and TNO in mid-November. The project partners intend that as many women in Bangladesh as possible should begin to use sanitary towels, and ones that are both comfortable and environmentally friendly. We put four questions to Monique Wekking of TNO about the Ritu project.
Why has TNO chosen to become active in this area?
’Innovation for Development means that we also apply our knowledge to improve the living conditions and position of people in third-world countries, and to thereby also contribute to business enterprises there. Approximately 40 million women in Bangladesh depend on sanitary towels. For 95 per cent of these women the cost is too much. They therefore use old sanitary towels, known as ‘nekra’ that are neither comfortable nor hygienic. This project centres on a campaign to promote the best introduction possible of sanitary towels and at the same time to launch the development of a more environmentally-friendly product.’
How will TNO get involved exactly?
‘TNO is focusing on the technological development of biodegradable sanitary towels. ‘We are investigating whether we can source local raw materials. We will then develop a prototype working alongside Rodenburg Biopolymers, a Dutch specialist in biodegradable starch plastics. When your aim is to give starch plastics just the right qualities for use in sanitary towels and to be able to produce these at a low cost, then nanoparticles of clay can be interesting. This technology falls within our area of expertise. Lastly, we want to do business with the private sector in Bangladesh. We have an eye on two businesses that already manufacture and distribute sanitary towels nationwide. Both have shown a lot of interest. We are happy with the financing of the development of the prototype. Once this has been achieved, businesses can invest further in up-scaling and roll-out.’
What hurdles do you need to clear?
’The sanitary towels currently on sale in Bangladesh contain a degradable absorbent layer, but the water-tight layer and the fasteners are made of normal plastic. In terms of functionality and cost price, the best option is to use a mixture of starch and clay. Making plastics from this that are suitable for sanitary towels has never been done before. We also need to take account of climate and cultural norms. In Africa, women use washable sanitary towels that they dry in the sun and thereby disinfect. In Bangladesh, where there is a lot of rain and humidity, things are different. Furthermore, there is almost no form of waste management. It’s therefore better to find a solution that enables women to discretely bury the sanitary towels.’
What will be the benefits of the project?
’With a population of 40 million women, a market share of just ten per cent would mean four million users. If each month each woman uses between ten and twenty sanitary towels, then you have a market volume of between 480 and 960 million items per year. Their manufacture and use therefore have a huge influence on the environment, the economy, and the comfort of the women who use them. Apart from Bangladesh, I envisage opportunities for this concept particularly in neighbouring countries such as India and Pakistan. If you have good ideas for a commercial roll-out or have contacts in the private sector in Bangladesh or neighbouring countries, I’d love to hear from you.’ Monique Wekking.