Solar Shrink mulch film
Brothers Mark and Robert Trenchard have overcome extreme adversity to produce the award-winning Solar Shrink mulch film, writes Harrison Hunkin
Australians love an underdog story – because there’s something truly admirable about overcoming adversity. So when the 2011 Brisbane floods hit and left Hydrox Technologies’ factory submerged in water, you could’ve forgiven co-founders and brothers Mark and Rob Trenchard for pulling the pin.
Instead, the lads have gone onto create Solar Shrink, a truly innovative mulch film, which is changing the agricultural landscape in Australia.
IT STARTED WITH AN IDEA
In the wake of the 2011 floods, Mark and Rob joined forces once again to start Hydrox Technologies, with the intention of creating a biodegradable mulch film that led to Solar Shrink by accident. “The reason we wanted a biodegradable product was we wanted something that was environmentally friendly,” Mark says.
“But the problem with biodegradables is that they are very expensive because of the polymers [used], so in order to compete with standard polyethylene products we needed to find a way to make a thinner film to get more yield and cut costs.
“So Rob, with my father Doug, developed a biodegradable product that was thinner and at the same time had a bit more strength. But the problem with it is that it just didn’t work.
“Biodegradable products are good for certain applications but for agriculture they can’t work. There are too many variables. One season you get more rain, the other you get less, one field might have more bacteria and bugs in the soil compared to the other, and you cannot control these variables.”
However, between developing the machinery to make a biodegradable plastic mulch film that was thinner and stronger, and the Trenchard brothers realising that their biodegradable product didn’t really work in an agricultural environment, they decided to put some normal plastic through their machinery.
The result was a material that was up to 300 per cent stronger than a standard mulch film, while at the same time using roughly 20 to 35 per cent less plastic and providing an unplanned benefit.
“The Solar Shrink was obviously better for the environment as we are using less plastic but also the film is much stronger,” Mark says.
“We also had a side benefit by complete accident; we hadn’t really developed it to be a shrinking mulch film but we found out that when we put the Solar Shrink out in the sun it shrinks and becomes very tight onto the growing bed.”
This is where Solar Shrink is so unique. Unlike most plastics that haven’t been manufactured with Hydrox’s technology, when other plastics heat up they expand and blow and flap in the wind. This flapping pushes out hot air, which results in moisture loss as well as plant damage as the flapping plastic rubs against the young plants.
“Essentially we stretch the film in certain directions and orientate the molecules to make it stronger,” he says.
“Our film, as soon as you place it down on the ground, will shrink very, very tightly onto the soil bed.”
At this point Mark demonstrates how quickly the Solar Shrink mulch film shrinks and tightens under heat. By placing what seems like a standard garbage bag under a lamp light (used to simulate the sun), the plastic immediately shrinks and tightens, similar to that of a drum skin.
According to Mark, the film takes less than half a minute to shrink.
“There isn’t another product that shrinks like that,” he says. “It shrinks at very low temperatures, around about 35-36 degrees Celsius. And because it’s black in colour, even if you lay it down on a really cold day, the black colour absorbs the heat and therefore allows the plastic to shrink.”
Like a fourth-born child, Solar Shrink was conceived by accident. What started as a thinner, stronger plastic that was better for the environment ended up with shrinking capabilities that changed the way farmers think about mulch film.
“It’s the way we process the material,” Mark says. “There is a lot of secret technology used; in terms of the material we use, we just use different grades of polyethylene that are not conventional.”
The Trenchard brothers have received strange looks by companies when explaining their product, highlighted by a recent trip to China.
“We were in China talking to a big German company that manufactures machinery for making plastics and, when we told them our technology, they sort of didn’t believe us,” Mark says.
“They didn’t believe that was the way plastic was made; it was too unstable, you cannot do it this way. But we once we went through the story of farmers not wanting flapping plastic because it loses heat and moisture etc, you could actually see the penny drop for them. Next minute they said, ‘Wow that’s a great idea, how can we help?’
“That sort of validation from them felt quite good.”
The first roll of Solar Shrink was provided to a Bundaberg farmer in February 2015; the reception back was swift.
“A week later he called my brother and said, “Hey Rob, you know that roll you sent up? Can you send up a pallet?” Mark says. “We thought, ‘Wow, we haven’t even got this process down pat but this bloke wants a pallet,’ so we shipped a pallet up there and about a week later he called again and told us we better come up and have a look at the stuff.”
Rob did drive up to Bundaberg to see the farmer who was incredibly impressed by Solar Shrink’s strength and its ability to tighten over the growing bed.
“That was the first time Rob thought we were onto something, because at that stage we didn’t know the plastic was going to tighten at the time, we just wanted a film that was going to be thinner and stronger,” he recalls.
“This farmer, three weeks after we sent him that pallet, called us up again and said, ‘You guys better send up a semi-trailer load of Solar Shrink because I’ve cancelled my order with your competitors and we haven’t stopped production since then; we’ve been flat out.’”
Within 18 months of launching Solar Shrink, the Trenchard brothers were at full capacity, supplying more than 50 per cent of the Australian market.
The product retails for $325 per 3km roll.
“We are supplying more than 50 per cent of all farmers,” Mark says. “We also supply eight out of the top-10 growers in Australia as well.”
In February, the Trenchard brothers took their Solar Shrink mulch wrap global, attending the World Ag Expo in California.
“We took out the smallest booth available at 10-foot-by-10-foot,” Mark says. “But, a part of being an exhibitor, they asked us if we wanted to nominate our product in the World Ag Expo’s Top 10 New Products competition.
“So we put our name forward and explained our technology behind it, not really thinking much of it because we were up against agriculture giants, but nevertheless about three months later we got an email telling us we’d been selected for the [World’s] Top 10 [ New Agricultural Products for 2018].”
Mark admits the recognition is one of the best things that has happened for the company.
“Coming from another country, we thankfully received a lot of media coverage,” he says. “While we were there we had four television interviews from companies like NBC, CBS, two from the ABC, as well as two radio interviews, all of which has produced so many leads for us over in the USA.
“For us it has been a huge life-changer, there is now the opportunity for us to go global with this product, which is really exciting.”
Looking ahead, the Trenchard brothers are currently researching ways to better the Solar Shrink mulch film.
“We are looking at using new polymer blends and new machinery to create an even thinner and stronger product,” Mark says.
1. Due to its unique properties, Solar Shrink doesn’t heat up and expand in the sun, which results in moisture loss as well as plant damage as the flapping plastic rubs against the young plants 2. Solar Shrink is now operating at full capacity,...