Saanich cleaning-wipes firm sees advantage with compostable approach

Rigorous cleaning protocols prompted by the pandemic have given a Saanich-based company in the disposable-wipes business a potentially bright future.

Bast Fibre Technologies Inc., a natural-fibre engineering company with headquarters at the Vancouver Island Technology Park, said it has secured $4.5 million in equity financing that will allow it to complete trials and enable initial production of its hemp-based compostable cleaning wipes.

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“I think we’ve demonstrated that is still possible to raise monies during this pandemic if you have a viable post COVID-19 business plan,” said Noel Hall, chairman and chief executive of Bast Fibre Technologies.

“In our case, it’s based on the demand for sustainable fibre-based cleaning wipes that can be used in place of synthetic fibre wipes. As a result of [the pandemic], there has been a permanent increase in cleaning-based wipes.”

The investment was led by the Lightburn Group and Natural Products Canada, said Hall, who founded the company in 2016.

Hall noted the investment comes at a time when governments are introducing legislation targeted at eliminating single-use plastics, and as cities sound alarms over the flushing of non-biodegradable synthetic wipes that are overwhelming sewer systems around the world.

Bast Fibre has been fine-tuning its manufacturing process at a facility in Hungary and continues to secure steady hemp markets in Europe, with the goal of producing compostable disinfecting wipes for customers this year.

Customers will likely include major non-woven-fabric converters who turn the material into wipes and sell it to household brand companies such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Walmart and Costco.

Non-woven products are ubiquitous in daily life. They include absorbent hygiene products such as diapers, disinfectant cleaning wipes, makeup removers and hospital gowns and masks. It’s a $50-billion global industry. Most of the fibres used in the non-wovens industry now are either synthetic or semi-synthetic and are major contributors to landfills and ocean micro-plastic contamination, said Hall.

So-called fatbergs — massive sewage clogs — have become a major problem in some cities, including London, in the past decade, largely because of the massive use of disposable wipes in aging sewage systems.

By contrast, Hall said, Bast Fibres’ materials are natural, plastic-free, compostable, sourced from an annually renewable crop and provide a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Hall said the long-term goal is to secure hemp, and possibly flax straw, in Canada and the U.S., and produce wipes at facilities in North America.

This year, Bast Fibre and U.S. manufacturing giant Georgia Pacific, one of the world’s largest producers of non-woven fabrics such as toilet paper and paper towels, signed a licensing agreement on patents related to natural-fibre products.

Ben Lightburn, the lead on the latest round of financing and chief executive of Mazza Innovation, a plant-extraction company, said major companies are recognizing that the future of many disposable products is shifting from synthetic-based to natural and compostable. Consumers are driving the change as governments are pushing it further with strict environmental legislation, he said.

“The non-wovens industry is certainly feeling the pressure to adopt more sustainable fibres in its supply chain,” Lightburn said in a statement.

Shelly King, chief executive of Natural Products Canada — which is funded by a range of public and private investors, including the federal government’s Centre of Excellence in Commercialization and Research — said funding Bast Technologies is critical in the quest to displace synthetic and semi-synthetic fibres, and to help create single-use products that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.

King noted the investment helps to add value to Canadian hemp crops. “Most of the hemp grown in Canada today is used for CBD [cannabidoil] production or as a seed crop for food,” she said.

“[Bast Fibre] will play an important role in building long-term demand for hemp straw and realizing the vision of whole hemp plant utilization.”

Hall said his company’s fibres perform better than traditional synthetic and semi-synthetic fibres. Trials and testing have been ongoing in Europe, where the company is meeting standards set up by the International Water Services Flushability Group, which represents utilities and water companies.

Hall said the cleaning-wipes market is going to go through a “seismic shift” that he expects to be permanent. “Everything with high-touch points has to be wiped down, whether it’s in sports or restaurants or stores.”

He said the European Union is poised to add fees at the manufacturing level for companies that are not producing compostable products.

Hall is best known as one of the founders of Victoria-based Aspreva Pharmaceuticals Corp., a company that found new uses for existing drugs. Aspreva tested a drug that had been used to fight rejection in organ transplants as a new treatment for autoimmune diseases such as lupus. It went public in 2005 in a $113-million IPO. In 2007, the company was sold for $915 million to Swiss Biotech giant Galenica Group.

The company is now known as Aurinia and is back in local hands. This month, it took a step closer to producing a lupus treatment by submitting a new drug application to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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