Creating an impact: How UAlberta students are changing the way we think about waste

In hopes of creating change, UAlberta students are championing a new way of thinking when it comes to feminine hygiene products.

Saba Al Hammouri - 13 May 2019

300 pounds. That's the average amount of waste a woman will produce in her lifetime through the use of pads, plugs, tampons and applicators. Of that, 35 pounds of the waste is pure plastic: here to stay thousands of years, long after its usefulness has passed.

Motivated to reduce those numbers, Hempact, a student-led, social entrepreneurship project at the University of Alberta, proposed an alternative - a 100% biodegradable pad made from hemp fibres and other environment-friendly material.

"The burden of environmental waste is one that our generation, and those to come, will have to bear. Many of the products that half of the world use during their menstrual cycle, unfortunately, contribute to this burden, " explains Anka Chan, Head of Research and Development for Hempact. "Our project has the potential to answer this global problem with a practical solution."

That practical solution is two-fold; cut down on agricultural and menstrual waste, while also destigmatizing the topic of menstruation through educational programming.

"Our team aims to solve the global challenge of reducing waste that is accumulated in our environment on a daily basis and address the stigma surrounding feminine hygiene," explains Mariam Humayan, the Financial Officer of Hempact.

In the fall of 2017, the project took off with the support of Enactus, a global not-for-profit that fosters social entrepreneurship. The team began working with Research and Development Officers, as well as Business Developers to formulate a prototype. At the same time, the team was presenting their work to various Edmonton Public Schools to advance the education surrounding the topic of feminine hygiene.

Despite the initial momentum of the project, the team soon found themselves facing obstacles.

"We were facing challenges and barriers both with the research and development of our project as well as reaching out to high schools in Edmonton to present our Education Development Program because of the sensitivity surrounding the topic," recalls Nicole Sanchez, Hempact's Project Manager.

However, the team soon found their break when the opportunity to compete in the World's Challenge Challenge (WCC) came up.

The World's Challenge Challenge provides a platform for students to present innovative solutions, which are tied into the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, to major global issues. This was the third year the WCC was hosted at the University of Alberta, but unlike previous years, this year the stakes were much higher. In addition to representing the University of Alberta at the Global Finals at Western University, the winners of this year's competition would also receive $10,000 to turn their idea into a reality.

Knowing that they had an innovative idea, which was aligned with SDG 12, responsible consumption and production, and SDG 15, life on land, the Hempact team knew that they had to give the WCC a shot.

Hempact, alongside 17 other teams with a wide array of great ideas, stepped up to the challenge of the WCC. Ultimately, the win went to Hempact. As the team explains, winning the WCC was about more than the grand prize; it was about receiving validation for their project, and knowing that is was feasible. Winning gave the team a renewed sense of motivation to continue the work that they were doing.

"I don't think we came into the competition with the thought of winning," says Nicole. "When we joined WCC, the real goal was to get Hempact's name out there and be more involved with the community on campus."

" I think [the] WCC has been such a huge turning point for our team," explains Nicole. "Having faced so much pushback, I think the WCC definitely reminded us why we were doing this in the first place."

With the momentum of their win and the help of their cash prize, the team is now working on releasing their product by January 2020 as well as re-launching their Education Development Program this summer with the hopes of getting more responses from high schools and other community stakeholders in Edmonton.

In June, the team will be representing the University of Alberta at the Global Finals at Western University, where they will have the opportunity to win an additional $30,000 to help them turn their prototype into a product ready for the market.

Moving forward, the team is hopeful for what the future holds for Hempact. Competing in the WCC reminded them of the purpose of their project and they are excited to continue making a positive impact in the world.

Read more about the World's Challenge Challenge

The winners of this year's WCC would like to thank the following individuals for supporting and believing in their project: Past and present Hempact team members, Enactus University of Alberta and Enactus Canada, their program manager, Heather Doran, their faculty advisors, Tony Briggs and Emily Block, eHub, University of Alberta, Professor Michael Serpe for graciously providing them with lab space and materials, Debra Greig of Transformana and Chris Fetterly of the Student Innovation Centre for serving as their mentors and advisors, Wade Chute of Tech Fibre Industries, Jesse Hahn of Natural Fibre Technologies for providing industry expertise and connections, and to all other U of A faculty members who believed in their project, their friends for the endless support, and their families for the encouragement and motivation they give them.