Reusable sanitary pads minimise landfill waste while restoring dignity

Submitted by: Tholakele Nene, Friday, April 10, 2015

Sue Barnes, a KwaZulu-Natal mother of two, has developed a reusable sanitary pad that not only places less pressure on the environment but also provides a long term solution for underprivileged girl learners who cannot afford disposable sanitary pads.

The Subz washable pads and panties were conceptualised by Barnes, who was approached by her daughter’s school to donate disposable sanitary pads to underprivileged girl learners. Upon further investigation Barnes was shocked to discover the high numbers of girl learners that were absent from school when menstruating because they couldn’t afford reusable sanitary pads or tampons.  Barnes wanted to create a sustainable long term solution to the problem instead of just donating disposable sanitary pads and came up with the idea of designing a sanitary pad that could be washed and reused.  Barnes was able to raise funds and began the production of the pads. Thus far Barnes has distributed the product to over 20,000 underprivileged girl learners in KwaZulu-Natal for free.

The design

Named after Barnes, “Subz washable pads and panties” are panties with press studs to which a Subz sanitary pad can be clipped onto. Subz sanitary pads are reusable cloth pads that are made up of six layers that include a 100% cotton outer layer, a water proofing layer, three layers of hydrophilic fabric, and an inner layer composed of hydrophobic fabric. According to Barnes unlike the normal store bought sanitary pads the Subz pad does not move or leak. “It is fixed in position, because the pad is clipped on”. 

Reducing waste to landfill

The sanitary pad is washable and therefore reusable. This helps to reduce the number of disposable sanitary pads that end up in landfill sites, in our sewerage systems, or in our rivers and beaches.  The sanitary pad is biodegradable and contains no gels or absorbent chemicals.  Therefore once the pad has reached the end of its lifespan, which is at least five years according to Barnes, and is sent to landfill it biodegrades and “does not secrete any chemicals into the ground water, because it is chemical free,” explains Barnes.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, in South Africa, there is no data that is readily available on the amount of sanitary waste that is generated in the country as sanitary waste from households is not separated and is therefore reported as part of domestic waste. With increasing urbanisation and the growth of the middle class, the amount of waste in general in South Africa is increasing. Similarly it can be assumed that the amount of sanitary waste is increasing in South Africa. Disposable sanitary pads and tampons are made from plastics that are not biodegradable and either end up in our landfills or in our oceans and rivers.

Cheap and easy to maintain

A pack of three pairs of underwear, nine reusable pads, and nine zip-lock packets (for used sanitary pads) can be purchased online for R150 (by those who can afford it). The money obtained from these purchases goes towards further distributing the product for free to those in need. According to Barnes the R150 pack can last a girl for three to five years. So instead of spending roughly R60 or more a month on store bought disposable sanitary pads for twelve months; one can purchase one pack of washable Subz pads that can be reused multiple times.  


As part of the project Barnes not only donates reusable sanitary pads but also gives talks on puberty, menstruation, personal hygiene, sexual health and HIV. In collaboration with popular local designer Gert-Johan Coetzee, they have created aprons with the female reproductive system on them which are used to explain the menstrual cycle to girls.

Restoring the dignity of young girls

A survey conducted in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal, with a group of school girls that have benefited from the Subz pad product confirmed that the product has improved their lives, decreased the number of absent days from school, and helped to restore their dignity. Many of the girls praised the product for its comfort and cost effectiveness. Some said it allowed them to attend school during their periods because it was reusable (they never ran out of supply) and because the pad stays in position there are no leaks or “accidents”.

One of the grade 11 pupil’s from Phoenix that was surveyed said, “I could not afford to buy three packs of sanitary pads every month but now I just wash my Subz pads”. Asked to give a reason why she would recommend the pads to anyone she says, “it is much cheaper, does not need attention, is easy to use and saves time”.

Barnes has recently won the Clarins most dynamic woman of the year award for the Subz product and plans to use the prize money of R15 000 towards the expansion and mass distribution of the product.

The Subz pads packages are available for purchase on the Subz website.

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Tholakele Nene