Ontario teen wins support, accolades for making sustainable period products – San Bernardino Sun

When it was about time for Khloe Thompson to get her menstrual cycle for the first time, a couple years back, her mom announced she wanted to throw her a “period party.” The idea was to mark the next phase in Thompson’s life while normalizing conversations about this perfectly normal process.

At first Thompson was mortified. But the conversation got her thinking of the “horror stories” she’d heard about what that time of the month can look like for women around the world, and she quickly became convinced there had to be a better way.

She thought about what she’d learned while volunteering to help the homeless, how women sometimes use any scrap of fabric they can find to serve as a sanitary pad. She thought, too, about her own mom, who once landed in the hospital with a rare but serious health condition that she says was tied to tampon use.

The glass-straw using teen then thought about the planet, and how an estimated 12 billion disposable pads and tampons are tossed in landfills each year in North America alone.

But fretting isn’t Thompson’s style. So instead of curling up with Netflix and a heating pad, she sat down at the sewing machine her grandma taught her to use and got to work designing her own reusable sanitary pad.

Two years and multiple prototypes later, Thompson, now 15 and living in Ontario, is the proud founder of a start-up company, PeachTree Pads. She’s received national recognition and funding to make reusable pads entirely from environmentally friendly materials. And she plans to use proceeds from sales of the pads to help provide feminine hygiene products to disadvantaged girls and women everywhere.

That’s landed Thompson at the forefront of a growing movement of young women helping to bring the once taboo-topic of menstruation out of the shadows, as they demand less shame and more sustainable options for dealing with a cycle that half of humanity experiences monthly for roughly 40 years of their lives.

A new problem

On the shelves of Target today, Thompson noted there’s just one reusable pad available. It’s made by a diaper manufacturer, and is a reworked form of the company’s primary money-maker.

The limited menu of sustainable feminine hygiene products at major retail stores seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.

Six in 10 women said they were interested in sustainable period products per a 2018 study by Shelton Group, a marketing firm focused on sustainability. But only about 17% of women in that survey said they’d switched to the sustainable period products that increasingly are available for sale online, such as reusable menstrual cups, washable cloth pads and period panties. A quarter of women surveyed said they’d never heard about such products, while another 19% considered making the switch but decided against it for reasons they described as “comfort” or “hygiene.”

Interest and awareness have no doubt spiked in the four years since that study was completed as more people are talking about menstruation. Young women now meet on the TikTok forum #PeriodTok to discuss issues and solutions related to their periods. And social media groups for women who like to hike and travel now routinely include tips and reviews for menstrual cups and period panties on the market today.

While taboos around such topics are ancient, the environmental harms of period products are a more recent development.

For centuries, women simply used, washed and re-used strips of fabric. When disposable pads and tampons first hit the market, about 100 years ago, they were game-changers in terms of making it easier for women to go to school and join the workforce. Those products also were made from cotton and other plant-based materials, which could biodegrade quite quickly in landfills.

In the 1960s and ’70s, plastics entered the picture, as companies competed to make pads stay in place better and be more absorbent while making tampon applicators more comfortable. Over the years more plastics were added, from individual wrappers to adhesives. With many mainstream products now estimated to be around 90% plastics, it can take 500 years for modern pads and tampons to fully decompose.

Then there are the health concerns. Along with synthetic plastics, single-use pads today also are more likely to have chemicals used for everything from bleaching to fragrance. While regulators say pads commercially available are safe for external use, limited studies have shown the thin skin that comes in contact with pads has much higher rates of absorption than skin on other parts of the body. That worries Thompson and many other women, with health concerns the No. 2 reason (behind environmental worries) that women in the Shelton Group study cited for considering a switch to eco-friendly products.

“None of these items should be used against our bodies for long periods of time,” Thompson said.

Sewing a solution

In February, 2020, Thompson bought some disposable pads and took them apart to study how they worked. Then she experimented with different eco-friendly fabrics, using teaspoons of water to test absorbency for the top layer and waterproofness of the outer layer.

Thompson enlisted five women in her life to test different prototypes. She got feedback on the design and effectiveness, changing the shape and materials several times. Once she got the basic plan nailed down, she partnered up with a manufacturer in Los Angeles that took her vision and made it into something that can be commercially produced.

That vision caught the attention of judges who oversee Prudential Financial’s Emerging Visionaries, a national program that recognizes teens who are finding innovative solutions to financial and societal challenges. Thompson was one of 25, chosen from more than 400 applicants, to win a spot in this spring’s Emerging Visionaries Summit in New Jersey. At the summit, the teens heard from the likes of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning and received personal coaching from leaders in the financial world. They also received $5,000 each to help advance their projects.

Thompson is using that money to help create packaging for Los Angeles-based PeachTree Pads products.

Final pad design includes options for different exterior patterns and colors for the interior linings. There are snaps to wrap around panties and help keep the pads in place. And they come in a storage bag with a PeachTree Pads label, which Thompson designed and friend Liana Torres (with whom she co-hosts the podcast “Marvel for Dummies“) produced.

Thompson expects to charge $20 or $25 for a package of three reusable pads, which she said can each be worn for three to five hours at a time and, with proper care, should last for years. (Care includes rinsing them first by hand, then throwing them in the washing machine in cold water.) And since studies show women on average spend about $150 a year on disposable products, switching to reusables could potentially save them thousands of dollars throughout their reproductive years.

Thompson hopes to start selling the cloth pads on her website within the next six to 12 months. She said a few small businesses also are interested in selling PeachTree Pads, and her long-term goal is to get the pads on the shelves of big retailers.

Anyone who doubts the teen can pull this off might consider the last time Thompson put her sewing skills to work in hopes of making the world a better place.

When she was 8, and still living in Orange County, Thompson started asking her mom questions about a woman she saw regularly who was experiencing homelessness. Since her grandma had then recently taught her to sew, Thompson made a tote bag and filled it with hygiene products to take to the woman.

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