A company using wool for disposable hygiene products.
A Wellington-based company, Woolchemy, led by CEO Derelee Potroz-Smith, has created a new material from coarse wool with the potential to become the Gortex of the hygiene products world. It is working on an answer to some of the most persistent problems for the disposable hygiene product world, as well as New Zealand’s coarse wool producers who have been struggling to find a market for their product in recent decades.
Derelee is from a multi-generational sheep and beef farming family in Taranaki. On the farm, she recalls her father as an ‘old-school’ farmer and skilled stockman, who believed in working with nature – such as timing grazing of sheep on hill country so the wool clip remains free of seed heads and vegetation; his quiet way with stock, so animals aren’t stressed or injured when moved; and his ‘regenerative’ approach to agriculture long before ‘regenerative agriculture’ became a phrase. Derelee says her mother, Angela, was ‘the farm organiser’, dealing with wool buyers and connecting to on and off-farm business activities.
Growing up in a male-dominated family, Derelee assumed she would be continuing the family farming tradition. But the 1989/1990 wool crash, with wool prices dropping from 50% to 10% of the farm income, radically changed her thinking. She acknowledges the influence of a primary school teacher, and others who backed her abilities, and that confidence, along with a fondness for physics, encouraged her to seek further education. She studied at Massey University (the only female in her engineering course) with Sir Paul Callaghan as one of her lecturers.
Armed with an Engineering degree, Derelee travelled overseas and on returning to New Zealand, began a family. But the desire to help the wool industry stayed with her, and while raising babies she grew increasingly aware of the damage that disposable nappies cause the environment. Derelee explains she developed what she terms a kind of ‘eco-anxiety’, that drove her ambition to support New Zealand’s wool industry. She aimed to develop something that used lots of wool - and get it into as many products as possible.
Discussions with Angela raised the possibility of using wool as absorbent material in disposable nappies, as an alternative to the chemical constructions of standard disposable nappies - or labour-intensive, high-environmental-impact, cotton options. In 2010, a business plan entered in a Bright Ideas Challenge won the ‘Best use of a natural material’ category, and support from B+LNZ, and what is now MBIE led to the development of an absorbent wool product. Derelee says there were many, many iterations she and her mother went through, to achieve this.
Funding for R&D projects through AgMardt, and collaborations with AgResearch’s Stewart Collie and his team, allowed development of a non-woven textile with remarkable absorbency, while retaining the benefits of wool. Work at the University of Otago has helped optimise the production process. Derelee also connects with groups such as Woolsource (founded by the Wool Research Organisation of NZ), the Strong Wool Action Group (SWAG), and the Campaign for Wool.
MPI funding support in 2020/2021 enabled further manufacturing trials by three international nappy manufacturers, as well as performance assessments by independent testing companies. As Derelee says these are critical steps in scaling up, as the end goal is to produce millions of metres of product per year. The prototypes have all three companies confirming the wool product is a better performing product.
Product research also involved travelling around America, attending diaper conferences. It is, as Derelee explains, a large and highly competitive industry. In 2020 the global market for disposable nappies was estimated to be worth around US$43.2 billion, projected to reach US$52.6 billion by 2027. But it isn’t just nappies. The personal care wipes market value is projected to reach US$48 billion in 2025, with babies being toilet trained later, families more mobile, women working more, with more disposable income and less time for domestic chores, so relying more on labour-saving, disposable options.
The material developed by Woolchemy processes coarse wool (between 30 -37 microns) to produce two types of lightweight, environmentally sustainable materials. One, called neweFlex™, has been developed for personal hygiene or wound care and can be used in many products, such as disposable nappies or face wipes. The other, neweZorb™, is designed for a longer-lasting textiles for athleisure apparel or cleaning textiles. Woolchemy’s customers are hygiene product manufacturers such as nappy producers.
Derelee describes wool as an ‘intelligent’ fibre, with thermoregulatory characteristics, naturally wicking and breatheable, as well as anti-microbial and odour-suppressing – all highly desirable features for the disposable nappy market. It is also 100% biodegradable.
One of Derelee’s main ambitions was to support New Zealand’s struggling wool industry. She is working with a couple of wool buyers and talking with farmers in the southern part of the North Island, to clarify what support is needed and what can be done to produce the quality and quantity of wool required as development continues. This will include how often and when shearing happens, what sustainable supply contracts can be developed, preparation of the wool clip, and information about where and how their wool is being used – all with a view to rebuild pride and confidence in the industry.
Derelee estimates up to 26,000 tonnes of coarse wool per year will be processed within the next 5-6 years. And there is huge potential for more development and new products into the future.