Rashmi Prakash doesn’t care for pragmatism. As a young girl growing up in Wales and southern Ontario, the Indian-born Prakash dreamt of genetically engineering “green dragons” that would fly over the planet and convert greenhouse gases into oxygen.
“I do consider myself delusionally optimistic,” she says with a laugh, speaking with The Coast over a video call from her home in Waverley on a Friday morning. “‘Be realistic’ is, like, the worst advice I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that after tiring of throwing away single-use period products every month (a born environmentalist, she doesn’t care for plastic, either), the engineering-trained Prakash would settle on making an alternative of her own. Together with friend and co-founder Lanna Last, the two have a vision to reshape menstrual products across the globe—by taking them out of landfills and turning them into compost.
Toward a circular economy
Prakash and Last are co-founders of Aruna Revolution Health Inc., a Halifax-based startup that aims to produce “sustainable menstrual pads” that cost less money and feel just as comfortable as traditional disposable pads, while also slashing landfill waste and carbon emissions. The pair has a broad goal: To provide “radically inclusive compostable products” that “demolish period stigmas” and “mitigate global climate change.” Born out of a shared desire to, as Prakash puts it, “not have to choose between our own well-being and the well-being of the planet,” the two have been prototyping a fully compostable menstrual pad made from plant-based food waste. And they’re nearly ready to start producing the pads on a larger scale.
The problem of single-use plastic pads is a pervasive one: In a single lifetime, a person who menstruates is predicted to throw away as many as 200 kilograms of tampons, pads and applicators—90% of which are made with plastic materials. In the United States alone, 12 billion pads and seven billion tampons are disposed of every year.
“They end up in the landfill, sitting there for 500 to 800 years,” Prakash tells The Coast.
In recent years, companies have introduced both reusable and biodegradable menstrual products, including menstrual cups and washable pads, but Prakash says there are limitations with both: “Neither Lana nor I were able to fit reusable products into our lifestyles—and we also recognize that reusable products [still] end up in the landfill at the end of the day—so they don't have an end-of-life plan.” Biodegradable products, meanwhile, have been rife for greenwashing: Even if a plastic breaks down, Prakash says, its end result is microplastics—which contaminate oceans, poison fish and could even change the way our oceans store carbon.
“It just didn’t really sit right with me and with Lana,” she adds. “What we wanted to do was create a pad that was disposable and that had an end-of-life plan.”
The two believe they’ve landed on the answer in plant-based fibres derived from food waste. “We realized there was a ton from grocery stores, from restaurants, from all of these places,” Prakash says. Food waste carries three distinct advantages: It’s compostable, it’s abundant and it’s cheap. Normally, she adds, grocery stores, restaurants and other food manufacturers have to pay for their food waste to go to a landfill or be composted. “We saw a really unique opportunity to be able to prevent that from ending up in the landfill and to direct that into our process, which then allows us to get these materials and make our pads more cheaply, since the initial feedstock is not really expensive for us.”
A startup born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prakash and Last made their first prototype pads while completing their graduate studies at the University of British Columbia. The two would meet in Last’s East Vancouver apartment, turning her kitchen into a mini-laboratory.
“We didn’t have a lot of funding when we first started, and we were bootstrapping everything,” Prakash recalls, laughing. “It wasn’t lab equipment. It was, like, slow cookers and things like that.”
Today, the two have a team of six interns, a growing board of advisors, and they’re about to sign a lease on their first industrial space in Dartmouth’s Burnside neighbourhood. Invest Nova Scotia just announced Aruna as winners of a $40,000 grant—a nod that means Prakash and Last will also be joining the province’s 2023 GreenShoots cohort, which offers support to early-stage Nova Scotia companies working in agriculture, clean technology and similar sectors.
Prakash herself just moved to Waverly five months ago. Switching from Canada’s west coast to Nova Scotia “just made sense” for the business’ future, she says.
“A lot of the support that we’ve been getting was out here anyway. We’ve been working with [Montreal-based] LOOP juice and a few other facilities as well, and they were all based on the east coast … You’ve got the Verschuren Centre [at Cape Breton University]; you’ve got Innofibre [in Trois-Rivières, Que.]; you’ve got Innovacorp supporting all of these different bio-based movements.”
With an expanded manufacturing space, she and Last are hoping to ramp up production of their prototype pads “very soon.” By August, they expect to be raising a pre-seed funding round. The two have designs on one day adding compostable diapers to their product offerings.
“When we originally started, we talked to so many people—and everyone was like, ‘There’s no way they’re gonna let you compost that; there's no way you're gonna be able to do manufacturing in Canada for this.’ We got a lot of nos, and ‘There’s no way you’re going to be able to do this,’” she tells The Coast. “We’ve been able to push past those ‘No ways’ and figure out how to do it—and talk to the right people to be able to help us do it.”
Could Aruna stand shoulder-to-shoulder one day with the Unilevers of the world—or force the industry giants to introduce their own compostable products?
“I think we’re still figuring out, like, what we want for the long run. But I mean, the core of everything we’re doing is making sure that every single menstruator that needs a pad has access to one. And so whichever way we can accomplish that, we’re open to it.”