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  • Nicola Shepheard

Putting wool into mass-produced disposables

Woolchemy chief executive and co-founder Derelee Potroz-Smith feels her Wellington-based startup is on the precipice of something major; something that could shake up multiple industries, not least New Zealand wool, while helping address the scourge of microplastic pollution.


The big idea at the heart of Woolchemy is that wool can and should replace fossil-fuel-derived synthetic ‘non-woven’ fibres used in an array of everyday disposable items, from nappies to pads to wound dressings and face masks.


Potroz-Smith, who grew up on a sheep farm in Taranaki, says not only will this have massive sustainability pay-offs environmentally, but it will also help make wool economically sustainable for Kiwi farmers. Currently, prices for strong wool, the stuff carpets are made from, which accounts for 85% of New Zealand’s total wool clip, often don’t cover the cost of shearing it, and farmers are stockpiling wool in sheds or even dumping it (it’s good for garden mulching).


Many people are surprised to learn, she says, that right now, synthetic textiles used in products like disposable nappies fetch higher per-kg prices than wool sold at auction in this country primarily for woven applications such as carpets. She is confident that replacement non-woven wool textiles will command a premium over synthetics due to the ever-growing consumer appetite for more sustainable products.


New Zealand Sheep Farm

She has grounds for confidence: several overseas nappy manufacturers are trialling in babies nappies containing a new textile Woolchemy has created, called neweFlex, and early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.


The 10-year-old company is pre-revenue and has so far been funded by R&D grants, family money and sweat labour by Potroz-Smith and her co-founder and mother, Angela Potroz. But Potroz-Smith expects Woolchemy will secure its first customer within the next three months, a second soon after, attract some investment, grow staff and turn over its first million dollars in the next 12 months.


“Our grand vision is to be a billion-dollar export company within the next five to 10 years. And we think we can be fairly profitable fairly early on just because of the sheer volume that we're outputting. We're wanting to replace millions of metres of the synthetic materials out there.”


From longevity to throwaway


The ‘aha’ moment for Woolchemy came in 2008 when she was changing her son’s disposable nappies while her mother, round visiting, was talking about the ailing wool industry’s need for product innovation.


“She made the comment, ‘jeepers, you go through a lot of nappies’, and I said, ‘I know, and what goes into them isn’t good for the environment, something needs to be done’. We looked at each other, and that was the connection.”


She’s always carried a sense of mission for wool. Growing up on a sheep farm in tiny Awakino, north Taranaki, she remembers when wool went from supplying half of the family’s income to barely 10% in the late 1990s. “That spurred me on to go to university and educate myself so eventually I could come back and help them.”


She ended up doing an engineering degree and went into software development, building applications for corporate businesses. When she got pregnant, she decided she wanted to stay at home with her kids (she turned down a job for Rod Drury building what became Xero).


Woolchemy co-founder and CEO Derelee Potroz Smith
Woolchemy co-founder and CEO Derelee Potroz Smith

Potroz-Smith and her mother toyed with the woollen nappy idea for a couple of years and then in 2010 they decided to apply for an R&D grant from wool levy funds left over from the disestablished Wool Board to develop woollen nappies (Potroz-Smith says the board itself should have put the levies into innovating, searching for the next big thing, instead of channelling it into woollen carpet, which then fell out of favour). With family help, they matched the $90,000 grant and commissioned AgResearch to figure out a way to make wool more absorbent. By the end of 2013, they had made a material that increased wool’s usual absorbency by 10 times, and six months later, that rose to 25 times.


“What we then realised was we had a very versatile material that could go into lots of different other applications. We thought, maybe we’re not the ones to make the nappy, maybe we should supply companies that are trying to make more sustainable products.”

In 2015, she travelled to the US to a non-woven conference and presented the new textile, patented as neweZorb, and was blown away by the interest in what Woolchemy was doing. NeweZorb was best suited to reusable products, but feedback from the international non-wovens community indicated a growing need from consumers for materials that are biodegradable and renewable but also convenient.


“It took us some time to work out which way to go. But that’s where we are now.”

They went back to the drawing board and developed a second wool textile, neweFlex, specifically designed for use in mass-produced, disposable items, using an $80,000 grant from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.


Trials with overseas nappy manufacturers were scheduled to start in 2020 but were delayed when Covid hit and diverted non-woven factory capacity to face masks and other PPE. The nappies being tested now contain only one layer of neweFlex, which would normally be polyethylene or polypropylene, but Woolchemy is working on developing another layer. The ultimate goal is disposable nappies entirely made of biodegradable materials, which could also include bamboo and cotton textiles.



Neweflex illustration | Woolchemy

Non-woven fabrics, created by placing fibres together and then using mechanical bonding to combine them into a cohesive webbed material, are in many everyday consumer goods. As well as nappies, Woolchemy will investigate adopting its textiles for use in wet wipes, pads, wound dressings and other healthcare products. The international non-woven textile market is worth US$47 billion; hygiene’s slice of that is US$8b.


It has been a big mental shift for local wool players from prizing and promoting wool’s longevity, particularly in carpet, to valuing its uses in products that last only hours.


Potroz-Smith: “At the beginning, we probably weren't taken too seriously by the New Zealand community, until Allbirds bought out its wool shoes, and people's perceptions completely got obliterated.”


Self-sufficiency and control


For now, Woolchemy’s textiles must be manufactured overseas, as no Kiwi manufacturer has the machinery required. It would cost $50 million to set up a factory in New Zealand, which is what Potroz-Smith wants to do eventually.


Initially, she sees scope for companies interested in developing natural and sustainable materials to collaboratively invest, with the government, in building the manufacturing capacity to prototype new products.


NICOLA SHEPHEARD

Nicola Shepheard is a journalist for NBR.co.nz


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