Kimberley Dobney and Ciara Shine of Turn and Flow are doing something truly amazing for both equality and for the planet. This is a start-up that’s developing a recycling system for organic menstrual care products. Their goal is to turn the products into useful things like renewable energy, instead of landfill. Simple, right? Of course not. Back in February, we spent some time with Kimberley and Ciara at their apartment in London to find out more about the work they are doing. Here is some of that conversation:
Kimberley, founder: Turn and Flow started as my final year project when I was studying product design engineering at Brunel University. That’s where Ciara and I met, actually. We looked a lot less tired back then. Initially, I wanted to create a more sustainable menstrual care product. I was looking at sustainable materials and quickly realized that organic menstrual products are actually really good—they’re sustainable and work just as well as standard products, but you can’t really find them in many shops yet. I didn’t even know that organic products were a thing before my project, or that standard menstrual products have chemicals and bleaches in them that are really bad for you. Through my research, I found that a lot of women use a combination of products. Reusable menstrual care products like menstrual cups are amazing, but as they tend to leak a bit, many women use them with a pad or liner. That’s where the idea of an alternative sustainable system came from, and it has gradually evolved from there.
Ciara, marketing manager: Turn and Flow is trying to get people to swap to organic period products and we’re doing the work to make those products actively benefit the planet. Hopefully, what we’ll find through our research is that we can turn organic menstrual waste into renewable energy and fertilizer. Then our job will be to make sure organic and non-organic products are disposed of separately. As a global society, we’ve got limited resources and we’re burning through them, so if we can use sustainable products and then do something with them afterwards—well, I don’t really see why we aren’t doing that already.
Kimberley: Used period products are classed as “offensive waste,” which is mad. It means they can’t be collected in large quantities as a single type of waste. The classification of offensive waste isn’t helpful, because a lot of recycling plants have very specific things that they can legally process. When I was doing research around how to process the waste, the answer from plant managers was always, “Oh, I haven’t dealt with that before—I have to pass you on to someone else.” It reinforced the fact that there has been very little conversation and research about menstrual waste disposal. Eventually, I spoke to Cranfield University’s water treatment department who were really keen to be involved. We got to work with a crowdfunding campaign and with the help of Back Her Business (NatWest) and the Environmental Biology Network, raised the funds to complete a £23k feasibility study in the labs at Cranfield. Amongst many other things, this will show us how much energy can actually be produced, whether the outputs are safe, and how it can be integrated into bigger recycling systems.
I think this is research that should have been done by the government, or a bigger organization than a couple of people running a start-up. A lot of investors and grant schemes don’t yet see the need, so it’s hard for them to believe in our service as we don’t have a physical product and it’s unlike anything that been done before. This trial will validate what we’re trying to do. Once we know how much energy can be produced, and that it’s safe and can be done, then we’ll have a minimum viable product and will be so much closer to bringing this service to the public.
Way down the line we’re going to approach governments and councils and try and get it into the public sector. But the first phase of the project is to get organic products certified to make sure that every part of them can be recycled. Through this certification, you’ll be able to see which products are Turn recyclable, what’s in them, how they are good for you and how using them will be good for the planet. Like sustainability, recycling has now become a really topical thing, but I worry that some menstrual care brands greenwash and use it as a marketing strategy, when there is actually no system in place to make their claims possible. The certification would make things like that more transparent.
“YOUR PERIOD IS YOUR PERIOD, THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. SO WE’D LIKE TO BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AND SHIFT PERSPECTIVES A LITTLE BIT.”
Kimberley: At first, I was scared about how to approach talking to males about menstruation. My family was actually quite concerned when I told them that I was doing this as a major project at university, because they weren’t sure if I’d get the same support from my male lecturers. When I speak to people at networking events, I get an initial shocked, glazed look. When people hear the word menstruation, they feel a bit out of their depth. Even many women of older generations have been brought up not to talk about it. We’re in our early twenties and interestingly, I find that a lot of people our age are fine with it. Actually, I have been surprised by how many guys are interested in what we do and really want to talk about it, especially about an infrastructural change for menstruation.
Ciara: We’re not just trying to get more research into the space—Turn and Flow is also about getting people talking about menstruation in general. Your period is your period, there’s nothing you can do about it. So we’d like to bring people together and shift perspectives a little bit.
Kimberley: We’re hoping that with the right business model, the Turn and Flow recycling system will be fully circular. The excess money made from the energy produced by the waste can be used to subsidize both Turn bins and organic products to make them cheaper and more accessible.
Ciara: It’s about time that menstruation was recognized as a natural bodily function. I don’t talk about it to everyone I meet, but if it’s relevant, I’m not going to shy away from it. I think bringing Turn and Flow into schools would help. It would be amazing to have Turn certified menstrual products available for all girls who need them—because there are still so many girls who can’t afford them—and to have menstrual education involved in the curriculum. I think I had one lesson on it as part of sex education in year 6. That was it. Bringing boys and girls together to talk about puberty is so important because they may grow up into positions of power and if they don’t know about something they can’t consider it.
Kimberley: If I could change one thing about the world, I would take away defined gender roles. It makes such a big difference in the development of technology, and I think society would be so much better if gendered stereotypes just weren’t a thing. There would be equal data and money devoted to research based on all genders. To become equal, we need to build in infrastructures that properly consider menstruation as an essential function. That’s what drives me to do all of this.