Alternatives to fossil-fuelled plastic big opportunity

If plastics were replaced with naturally produced fibres, such as wool, what kind of innovation...
If plastics were replaced with naturally produced fibres, such as wool, what kind of innovation would take place? PHOTO: ODT FILES
My daughter coveted a pair of Doc Martens for some time. Yes, Docs are back on trend, or were they ever not?

The exciting day of purchase came and we were presented with an astounding array of choice. Perhaps the most perplexing was when the shop assistant asked us, “Do you want vegan boots?” My befuddled brain battled with what she was asking given we were in a shoe shop, not a cafe, then it dawned on me, “Oh, are you asking us if we want to buy PLASTIC boots?”

“Well, yes, I guess so,” she answered.

I firmly responded, “No thank you.”

A year on, my daughter wears her black leather Doc Marten boots with pride.

I spent my Sunday morning this week reading the 2021 KPMG Agribusiness Agenda, as one does when one has questionable interests. (

The Agenda is always a good read, an awful lot is covered and of particular interest to me was its exploration of the consumer shift towards natural fibres.

I am hoping in five years’ time (is that timeframe too optimistic?) that the shoe shop assistant will ask me a subtly different question — “Which natural fibre boots would you like?” — and I will have a choice between traditional leather, bioplastics from forestry waste, or fibres from some other unusual source, mushrooms, insect farm waste, sugar cane or wool.

Our global dependence on non-degradable plastics, produced from fossil fuels, is alarming — and from all I read, plastic recycling is not the solution.

Bill Gates starts his latest book, How to avoid a climate change disaster, by analysing the number of fossil fuel events we unthinkingly partake in every day.

It is worth doing a similar exercise with fossil-fuelled plastic. Here is my morning: I pick up my phone with its plastic cover and plastic parts, sit on my plastic toilet seat (without my phone), get into my laminated plastic shower, shampoo my hair with ingredients that I don’t want to think about, drink a cup of tea using a tea bag which has plastic glue, or use my stainless steel coffee maker — wait, it’s fake steel, it’s actually plastic , sigh ... I haven’t even made it to my car. You get the picture.

If I were to replace every piece of plastic from my day with a naturally produced fibre product, what kind of innovation would that take, what kind of change of thinking and lifestyle would that mean and what kind of additional cost would be entailed?

The good news is that there are some fantastic initiatives in New Zealand, many of which are fledgling and need serious investment to take off.

Here is one close to my heart. Much of New Zealand’s forestry industry is exported in the form of logs, largely to China, a country which wants to be self-sufficient for fibre by 2035 — which should ring alarm bells for the forestry industry. There is significant potential to turn forestry products into bioproducts and, according to the Agribusiness Agenda, the bioproducts wave could add $30billion a year to New Zealand’s GDP.

NZ Bio Forestry aims to convert raw forestry material, starting with forestry waste, into bio-packaging, bio-plastics, bio-energy, bio-fuels and bio-adhesives. NZ Bio Forestry is proudly Maori-led and collaborating with partners in Taiwan and Singapore. Investment will fund the building of a pilot plant in the Manawatu — the future programme is one of innovation, technical challenge and potentially big rewards, financially and environmentally.

In a similar innovative vein, young entrepreneur Logan Williams, originally from Timaru and named in the 2020 Forbe’s 30 under 30 (in the world), is working with NZ Merino to examine wool as an alternative for plastic products, by turning wool into a pelletised base product. Their patented method combines polylactic acid (PLA) from corn starch with coarse wool. They are building a company, Keravos, and will target products such as kayaks, catamarans, tiles, buttons and zippers, furniture, lighting fixtures, claddings, doors and fabrics.

Finally, Lanaco is a company making Nasa-approved air filters from wool. During the pandemic they innovated to develop high-tech, medical grade face masks which they have taken to market — surely a no-brainer for government and commercial support, given the number of synthetic face masks being disposed of.

These are three companies with potential for greatness — world-class innovators and innovations, world-class visions and real examples of how local business can do good in our country and our world. Who said anything about a sunset industry?

  • Anna Campbell is the co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company and a partner of AbacusBio Ltd, an agri-technology company.


"Nike is launching a new sneaker range made from vegan pineapple leather. The sportswear giant has partnered with acclaimed brand Piñatex – which creates cruelty-free leather from pineapple leaf fibers."
It has been estimated that leather has nearly 4X the environmental impact of polyester. The "Pulse of the Fashion Industry" report ranked the production of sheep's wool as more polluting (for cradle-to-gate environmental impact per kilogram of material) than that of acrylic, polyester, spandex, and rayon fibres.
Replacing plastics with animal fibres is not a long term solution. Instead it will just make animal farming more profitable and in doing so increase the huge damage already being done.

This country was partially founded on growing flax. To make linen. Some of the best in the world. It supported many a family Maori and Caucasian. It could serve as carbon capture. fibre and seed oil on land which is poor. The honeymoon is over for fossil fuels