Single-use plastics are not only finding their way into landfills, they’re becoming the main subject of legislation, too. The European Union’s single use plastic directive entered into force in June 2019 and now imposes a number of regulations including outright bans on the use of some materials to new producer obligations and labeling requirements. California followed suit in 2014 with its statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at retail stores and has led the US in slowly putting increasing regulatory pressure on plastics.
Unsurprisingly, some manufacturers who rely on synthetic substances for their products are starting to search for something new.
“We are very much a specialty fabric company. We are getting inquiries from end marketing organizations telling us they have a two or three-year time horizon to phase single-use plastics out of their products and that they want to design natural fibers into their products. They are asking to work with us now,” Noel Hall, chairman and CEO of Bast Fibre Technologies, told AFN. Bast currently uses hemp and flax for their fibers.
Bast Fibre Technologies recently closed a C$4.5 million ($3.33 million) equity financing co-led by the Lightburn group and Natural Products Canada. A number of existing investors also participated in the round.
Launched in 2016, Bast describes itself as a natural fiber engineering firm focusing on the nonwovens industry. Nonwovens are high-tech engineered fabrics made from a variety of fibers and used in consumer and industrial applications. From diapers to makeup remover towelettes to disposable sanitizing wipes, to name a few examples. Today, most of the fibers used to make these products are derived from synthetic or semi-synthetic sources, which are major contributors to landfills and ocean microplastic contamination, according to the startup.
Bast has developed a wet processing technology as well as a post wet processing fiber cleaning technology. It doesn’t work with farmers directly but influences how farmers in the flax or hemp space produce their natural fiber inputs. Developing natural fibers starts with a process called field retting. Once a plant is cut, the straw is left on the ground. In climates with morning dew and afternoon sun, this cycle of moisture and heat achieves a well-retted fiber over the course of four to six weeks. Bast then takes this retted material and creates natural fiber materials to sell to other businesses.
Although technically a B2B operation, Hall is ever mindful of the demand-driving “2C” at the end of this equation.
“From a marketing business strategy, I want consumers and customers to be aware of our fibers and to look for our fiber logo when purchasing a diaper or makeup remover. We want them to look for the Bast Fibre logo and to understand the attributes of it,” Hall explains.
Some clever marketing has already been stitched together to help consumers associate Bast with a more sustainable option. The startup’s name, Bast, is a botanical term used to describe strong, woody fibers like flax, hemp, ramie, or jute — all plants being used to fuel the burgeoning natural fiber segment. A few taglines that the brand has already created are “Mother nature knows Bast” and “The bast fiber for the planet.”
The rise in demand for disposable cleaning products due to Covid-19 has also given a number of manufacturers an opportunity to reconsider some of their product specs with an eye towards sustainability. Earlier this year, it announced a partnership with Georgia Pacific to license some of Bast’s IP.
Bast is hoping to meet the growing market demand for natural, plastic-free alternatives to synthetic materials. Although a changing regulatory landscape is one of the primary drivers of the shift, consumers are also leading companies to seek out different formulations. A number of brands are fast at work to remove synthetics from their products to appease consumers including Timberland, which recently launched a new boot made from leather sourced from regenerative cattle ranches.
Over the course of the last year, however, Bast has been focusing less on consumer perception and more on carving out a new supply chain for natural fiber processing.
Given that many manufacturing facilities are geared entirely towards processing synthetic fibers. For the last year or so, Bast has been carefully weaving together an IP portfolio of technologies designed to help synthetic-focused processing equipment handle natural fibers like hemp and flax.
“The first challenge was getting our fibers to be able to run at the kinds of levels that you need them to run at on the equipment lines. That’s not easy to achieve. What they want is something that looks and runs like a synthetic but has the attributes of a fiber. I’d say a strong first-mover advantage we have is that we’ve been worrying about this ahead of everyone else and we have our own suite of patents around it,” Hall says.
The startup is commercializing its natural fiber processing technology this year. With that snag out of the way, it’s now focusing on the demand horizon ahead. The fiber market is massive and as brands seek out natural inputs to replace synthetics, the demand for hemp, flax, and other natural fiber inputs will increase in kind.
This is where farmers have a starring role to play.
“I want to make sure I have enough biomass to meet the future demand in a world where you take 20% to 30% of the global synthetic fiber market and convert it to natural fibers. That’s a lot of fiber that has to be processed,” Hall explains. “It’s doable but requires me to build out a supply chain to meet that future demand over the next couple of years and to demonstrate a consistent production of quality fiber that they need.”
Spearheading a new supply chain can take time and be rife with challenges as some stakeholders like the synthetics industry pushback. But with favorable regulatory tailwinds, the power of consumer demand on its side, and some promising IP, the startup seems well-poised to give its bast shot.