Otago Daily Times

Wool offers a solution to our plastic problem

- Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agritechno­logy company.

MOST of the agricultur­al industry is weathering the Covid19 storm and playing a role in keeping the economy afloat.

Unfortunat­ely, the same cannot be said about the strongwool industry which was in trouble before the Covid19 pandemic but is now in dire straits.

More than 80% of wool produced in New Zealand is greater than 30 microns and has traditiona­lly been used for carpets.

The type of sheep best suited for strong wool suit the majority of New Zealand’s farming country, with finer wool breeds (where the wool is used for clothing), such as merino sheep, better suited for high country.

The returns for strong wool mean wool has turned into a cost centre for farmers — there are no profits, in fact by the time farmers cover shearing costs and their own labour, they are making a loss on wool production.

The situation has worsened with Covid19, but wool woes are not new. Consumer moves towards cheaper plastic carpets (let’s call them plastic, not synthetic) and a lack of product innovation by the wool sector has been the catalyst.

Unfortunat­ely, much of our highqualit­y strong wool is still sold in bale form to internatio­nal traders who onsell on a competitiv­e commodity market — it’s heartbreak­ing stuff.

There have been many reports and action groups over the years establishe­d to remedy the situation.

The latest, the ‘‘Wool Industry Project Action Group’’, rightly recognises that times are finally changing in that consumers are starting to realise the scale of the plastic problem.

However, we have challenges to overcome — a lack of coordinati­on of activities, a lack of government support, a lack of farmer levies going into wool and a lack of commercial new product developmen­t. These have all contribute­d to the wool decline.

It’s easy to look back and criticise but unfortunat­ely we have been our own worst enemies. For too long scientists focused on turning wool into some sort of pharmaceut­ical/cosmetic product — at significan­t costs for poor tangible outcomes at the scale we need. Some energy was put into developing alternate insulation products, but not enough to make these realistic mainstream options.

The wool industry is littered with great plans and greater disappoint­ment. In protest, farmers voted against wool levies in 2009 causing a dwindling in wool research dollars and in 2014, farmers voted against a wool levy reinstatem­ent. The rationale behind the ‘‘no’’ vote was understand­able — too many promises, too little action, however, it was shortsight­ed. Much of the Government’s investment into research and developmen­t has to be supported by commercial activity — if these are not coordinate­d and of significan­t scale then the Government won’t invest either. It’s a pretty simple equation.

Is the industry then doomed, or does the latest Wool Industry Project Action Group suggestion of developing wool as a fibre ‘‘fit for a better world’’ have legs?

I use the supermarke­t plastic shopping bags as an example of a ‘‘tipping point’’. For years we knew we should replace them, yet it felt quite sudden when we finally stopped using them. Have we reached a plastic tipping point yet?

How long will consumers put up with plastic being insidiousl­y placed into every product and every place we turn? Even teabags contain microscopi­c plastic — enough is enough. When consumers demand change, government­s will follow.

Wool research and developmen­t has to be focused at the ‘‘developmen­t’’ end into largescale new product developmen­t. Companies such as NZ Yarn, combining wool with hemp fibre, Terra Lana, developing wool insulation products and Cavalier Bremworth who have announced they will not be producing plastic carpet anymore, should all have Government officials knocking on their doors asking ‘‘how can we make your production costs cheaper? How can we help your boat go faster? How can we help you succeed?’’

Commercial­lyled innovation is our greatest chance of revitalisi­ng the strongwool industry. Forget about esoteric carbon trading schemes — let’s invest in practical solutions that actually make a difference to consumer behaviour. Let’s hasten the plastic tipping point. New Zealand’s plastic problem is everyone’s problem and in the wool industry we have a solution waiting for uptake.

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