Boundaries 'limitless' for new eco-fabric

The Formary's Bernadette Casey has been developing a rice straw and wool blend.
The Formary's Bernadette Casey has been developing a rice straw and wool blend.

Upholstery fabric developed in Wellington by The Formary that blends Chinese rice production waste product with New Zealand wool will be sold in the United States next year.

During Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown's business delegation to China last year, connections were made with the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, which wanted new ways to recycle the millions of tonnes of rice straw being burned every harvest, creating pollution and visibility problems.

The Formary specialises in transforming post-industrial waste and has created a new fabric made from 70 per cent New Zealand wool and 30 per cent rice straw. It is working with a partner in Wellington's Chinese sister city Tianjin that is supplying the rice straw.

"We presented the prototype to our Chinese partner Grand Peak in June and they wanted us to roll it out at the next harvest in October, but that was too soon," The Formary director Bernadette Casey said. "We're looking at September or October 2013."

The Formary has developed a similar product from recycling jute coffee sacks with wool for cafe chain Starbucks' chair coverings.

"We've had strong market interest. A distributor in the States is requesting exclusivity of the fabric without even seeing it, but that will also be on the back of our project with Starbucks."

The rice straw blend fabric was no more expensive to produce than standard wool blend upholstery materials. Because of the straw having a high silica content it was highly anti- bacterial and highly flame resistant, enhancing the existing flame-resistant properties of wool.

About $300,000 had gone into research, production and supply chain development so far, including $150,000 of funding from New Zealand Beef + Lamb. It was now being refined at Massey University.

The United States was a target market in particular because the Government-backed energy efficiency certification LEED programme meant businesses were given tax breaks in some states for using products with recycled material content.

The Formary could license and manufacture the wool blend products all over the world, which meant huge volumes could be manufactured.

Stephen Fookes, spokesman for the Campaign For Wool In New Zealand, said the impact on the local wool industry could be very significant. "If it is driven by recycling the Chinese rice harvest it would use a heck of a lot of New Zealand wool, a very large mount. I think the boundaries are almost limitless."

Gisborne wool merchant Peter Tate said partnering with China was a good way for the New Zealand wool industry to achieve scale. "I hope they make a fantastic success of this latest venture. It's a great idea."

Contact Jazial Crossley
Wellington business reporter
Twitter: @msbananapeel

The Dominion Post