Sustainable menstruation to eliminate plastic waste and period poverty in marginalized/low-income communities

I am Founder and President of The Period Society, a non-profit which helps low-income communities access eco-friendly period products

Photo of Swara Patel
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Website or social media url(s) (optional):

website: Instagram handle: @periodsociety

Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Women in marginalized communities India, United States, and many other countries lack access to menstrual hygiene products and education surrounding safe reproductive health practices. Moreover, plastic sanitary napkins and tampons are non biodegradable, contain harmful chemicals, and take anywhere from 500-800 years to decompose hence filling landfills. A single menstruator can produce over 125 kg of plastic menstrual waste in a lifetime.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

I run my non-profit, The Period Society, where we conduct menstrual hygiene education sessions in low income communities with a two fold goal of explaining the biological process of menstruation to break the menstrual taboo while demonstrating and advocating for the use of eco-friendly reusable cloth pads which we distribute for free at the end of our sessions. The cloth pads that we use only have a thin PUL layer which absorbs menstrual blood as well as commercial sanitary napkins but at the same time lasts for upto 3 years and is a lot more cost effective. Over 90% of the pad is also biodegradable. We talk about the need to use safe period products and explain the menstrual cycle keeping in mind environmental impact and interact with communities in their local dialect to make sure that they understand the need to cut down the waste in their landfills and take climate action within their communities given the detrimental effects of plastic menstrual hygiene products on both their bodies and their environment. In communities with a low water supply where plastic pads are the only alternative we also conduct sessions on effective waste management and the need to segregate waste.

3. Using STEM as a force of good: Please specify how are you using STEM to solve for an environmental challenge you are passionate about.

The solutions my organization proposes as well as our method of working are largely based on STEM. We empower women and girls in marginalized communities with a sense of agency regarding their reproductive and menstrual health by conducting sessions, often with qualified healthcare professionals to provide an understanding of women's health in low literacy/low income communities. We also use STEM to encourage profound climate action with our sustainable menstruation campaign which is a driving force behind many of our initiatives. During all of our sessions we speak with our audience about the chemicals present in sanitary napkins which are harmful/uncomfortable to the skin and about how this waste collectively builds up and poses a huge challenge to the environment and waste management in landfills. We distribute reusable pads with a PUL layer which can last for 3 years and require only sunlight and water without detergent to clean and are economically up to 10 times cheaper than purchasing pads for the same period of time. We also raise awareness on our social media on other sustainable period products such as menstrual cups, reusable period underwear, and cotton tampons.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

I grew up in India for 16 years before moving to the United States at the beginning of my junior year of high school. As soon as I hit puberty, I was exposed to cultural stigma which made menstrual blood 'impure' and there was a lack of menstrual hygiene education in my own school and community. As I began trying to make more sustainable choices because of an environmental science class which exposed me to the underestimated dangers of plastic, one day as I was disposing off a bag full of used sanitary napkins, I realized that during 7 days each month I generate so much of plastic waste myself and so do all the women and girls around me. Hence, I decided to blend environmental and societal impact to provide menstrual hygiene education sessions and cloth pads to communities in need to enable girls to experience periods with dignity while eliminating plastic waste in these communities.

5. Video (Keep it simple, a video made on a hand-held phone is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

A single plastic sanitary napkin takes 500-800 years to decompose and I can produce over 125 kgs of plastic menstrual waste alone in a lifetime. Hence it is important for me to step up and make conscious living choices by making sure that I am not an agent of harm to the environment myself and encourage individuals to adopt eco-friendly period products. Moreover, as a woman I want to change the harmful attitudes towards reproductive health and menstruation to make our periods stigma free.

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

We conduct menstrual hygiene education sessions in collaborations with other NGOs, schools, shelter homes, and groups. We use videos, visuals, and engage in an interactive conversation in the local language with our audience to explain key concepts of menstrual health. We also host fundraisers and have recently launched our own merchandise to distribute free menstrual hygiene cloth pad kits sourced from Days for Girls and we demonstrate of their proper use and care before distribution.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

The Period Society is unique in the way it operates compared to a lot of other non-profits which focus on menstrual hygiene is that our work is not limited to conducting drives and donating products. We have a unique, sustainable, and long term focus on environmental impact hence we always conduct educational sessions where we burst taboos surrounding periods and also advocate for a reduction of plastic waste by choosing to exclusively distribute eco-friendly period products. We also train members of the local communities to facilitate the conversations surrounding menstruation in the future.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made?

In the past three months before the lockdown in India we reached over 400 women and girls through our campaign in tribal and rural areas in Gujarat and we met their menstrual hygiene need for the next 3 years with our reusable menstrual hygiene kits and eliminated myths surrounding reproductive health with a network of healthcare professionals, social workers, and students. Moreover, we have supplied two organizations with a year's supply of period products. We have also created our own merchandise with support from Harvard's International Relations Council as winner of their Act to Impact challenge and sourced over 500 items from local, small businesses in India and these include eco-friendly cloth tote bags to eliminate the use of plastic bags as well as pouches for menstrual cups and reusable period products so that we have a sustainable source of revenue to fund our initiatives.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

To amplify our impact we will be expanding chapters of The Period Society at universities in the United States as well as colleges in India. Chapters will conduct sessions, outreach, and fundraising. We will also complete setting up our online store and continue with social media outreach and marketing while constantly striving to make our merchandise as eco friendly as possible. We will also be partnering with other sustainable brands and healthcare professionals to create digital content that is accessible to people worldwide. Ultimately, we hope to raise the funds and gain mentorship to begin our own manufacturing reusable cloth pad by employing girls in urban slums and using the proceeds to further our outreach in underserved areas.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

Nita is a 15 year old school girls who used a dirty rag or plastic pads depending on her family's fluctuating income. When we introduced her to menstrual hygiene education and the use of cloth pads, she convinced other women in her slum about the need for effective disposal for menstrual waste and to switch to cloth pads. Rea, a 17 year old from Mumbai who advocates for sustainable living made the switch to a cup after joining our team and joins our sessions to advocate for period equity.

11. Please share ideas of how you can partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

The change maker community has powerful longitudinal impact in STEM and social good hence I will organize collaborations by finding intersections between our work. For example, I could partner with an up cycling initiative to hold a collection drive and use the proceeds to fund a Period Society session. Moreover, I would love to feature female change makers on our social media handles and upcoming YouTube series in a Womenspiring Wednesdays podcast series to tell their stories and inspire others

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

The Period Society's model is unique in the sense that it caters to Generation Z's consciousness for sustainable living as well as providing an eco-friendly solution which is cost effective and hence not only promotes accessibility but also eliminates the pressing environmental challenge of increasing plastic waste. By engaging in our work not only do you help people experience periods with dignity but also pioneer crucial societal conversations surrounding menstrual health and sustainability.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media
  • Participated in previous Ashoka challenges
  • Email

Evaluation results

5 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 40%

Probably - 40%

Maybe - 20%

Probably not - 0%

No - 0%

2. CONNECTION to Environmental Sustainability

5 - Absolutely! It is totally clear that the solution is contributing directly to environmental sustainability and/or addressing climate change - 60%

4 — Yes, it establishes a connection to environment/ climate change but could be stronger - 20%

3 — Somewhat, the entry speaks to this environmental sustainability, but the direct impact is not well established - 20%

2 — Not really, the connection to environment/ climate is very weak - 0%

1 — No. The entry does not have a reference the solution’s impact on environment and/or climate change - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%

3. Is this entry CREATIVE?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 40%

4 - Yes, I think so - 60%

3 - Maybe - 0%

2 - Probably not. - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Does this entry demonstrate a COMMITMENT to changemaking?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

4 - Yes, I think so - 100%

3 - Maybe - 0%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Does this entry value CHANGEMAKING through collaboration with other stakeholders in its approach?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 20%

4 - Yes, I think so - 20%

3 - Maybe - 60%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

6. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 0%

4- Yes, I think so - 60%

3- Maybe - 40%

2- Probably not - 0%

1- No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: What are the strengths of this project?

CONNECTION: You have a great understanding and personal connection to the problem - 100%

CREATIVITY: You have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions to aid environmental sustainability/combat climate change - 60%

COMMITMENT: You have a thoughtful plan for growing your business, and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 20%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: You value thinking around how to activate other changemakers and empower them to care about your cause. You also have a clearly defined plan on how to collaborate across multiple stakeholders - 40%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 60%

VIABLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 60%

Other option - 0%

8. FEEDBACK: What are some areas for improvement for this project?

CONNECTION: Why you care about the environment/ climate was unclear – It would be great to elaborate on what this solution means to you, personally and how it affects you and/or your community. - 0%

CREATIVITY: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 0%

COMMITMENT: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 50%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming. How will they care about environment/climate if they currently do not? Think about how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 100%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 100%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 50%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 0%

Other option - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Madhukar Kotwal

Hi Swara,
You are doing great work in such a dedicated manner. Wish you all the best in all your endeavours. God bless.
Adult Diapers used by millions of elderly people are another huge source of pollution. Are you planning to come up with some affordable & eco-friendly solution for that problem too?

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