Opinion: New Zealand has banned single use plastic bags, so why can’t we get rid of synthetic carpets? Dr Jacqueline Rowarth investigates.

New Zealand banned single use plastic bags in 2019 from July 1.

Over 9000 people had their say in the consultation process, and the Ministry for the Environment took action. The aim was to reduce waste and protect the environment.

New Zealanders adapted so quickly that it is difficult to imagine how we could have been so profligate with plastic in the past.

The mystery is why we haven’t taken the same environmental approach to other components of life involving the petrochemical industry.

Although electric cars featured in the Climate Change Commission’s report, people are already debating the cost and whether or not “fit for purpose” (range-anxiety being real), has been achieved.

Farmers planting trees seems like an easier option for society in general.

But there are other actions that we could adopt to show New Zealanders are committed to change.

Wool carpet in new houses is an example. Wool carpet is made from coarse wool, not the fine merino wool that is in fashion. Wool carpet, instead of synthetic, probably doubles the cost – but as a proportion of the actual cost of a new house is very small.

Wool carpets account for only about 15 per cent of the carpet market in New Zealand, yet wool is biodegradable and non-allergenic, removes carbon, doesn’t release microplastic pollution, is fire retardant and is naturally resistant to stains and crushing.

A good quality carpet will outlast a good quality synthetic carpet. Cavalier Bremworth announced last year that it would be focusing on natural products in response to increasing consumer demands for sustainability.

Yet the standard new build comes with synthetic carpet.

In the United States, carpet has been estimated to account for more than 1 per cent by weight and about 2 per cent by volume of all municipal solid waste; Gaia estimated 3.5 per cent in 2014 by weight. And reports that only 2.2 per cent of carpets in the US are from wool and jute.

Increasingly, companies are marketing removal and recycling services for carpet.

These are mostly at a cost to the owner, rather than embedded in the initial cost of the carpet, which is understandable given the time frame involved. Technology changes will alter the financial equations.

For some, such as US flooring company Interface, the technological changes have enabled carpet based not on fossil fuel but on corn (maize) – using the products of photosynthesis before the “fossilisation process” rather than after.

But corn is a crop, requires pest control, fertilisers and planting/harvesting before processing and is grown on land that could used for growing food for direct human consumption.

Wool is grown on land that mostly cannot be used for anything except grazing animals or growing trees.

The latter can be turned into products such as lyocell or viscose, and then used in clothing or other materials, but there is a lot of processing involved.

Google “is bamboo fabric really sustainable” and the information is eye-opening.

Bamboo, cotton, hemp and the relatively new development of corn are all admirable initiatives, but wool requires fewer steps and comes from a multipurpose animal (meat and skins, for instance).

Currently the costs of shearing outweigh the value of the wool harvested by approximately 50 per cent.

A $10,000 wool cheque is associated with $15,000 worth of costs – not including the farmer time for mustering and drafting.

An alternative view would be to reconsider how we put our money behind our desire to be sustainable.

The Government has banned plastic bags and has proposed a ban on gas connections to new houses from 2025. Why not add wool carpet to the thinking?

American data suggests that it takes a barrel of oil (150 litres or 42 gallons) to produce 10,000 plastic bags.

There is also a figure floating around that for an average house, synthetic carpet is the equivalent of 20,000 plastic bags.

That could mean a saving of two barrels of oil (fossil fuel) for every wool rather than synthetic carpet.

In addition, the wool contains carbon – it is a form of sequestration. Pure organic carbon makes up 50 per cent of the weight of wool, higher than cotton (40 per cent) or wood pulp–derived regenerated cellulosic such as viscose (24 per cent).

Converted into carbon dioxide equivalents, 1 kg of clean wool equates to 1.8 kg stored in a durable, wearable form.

The International Wool Textile Organisation made all this clear in their document on “Green wool facts: the wool industry and the environment”, published in 2013.

In 2009 there was a debate about whether wool should be included in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme.

The overall conclusion seemed to be that it would be a nightmare of paperwork for a short-term sequestration, because wool is harvested regularly and the grower is not the one who benefits from the durable use in carpets (or insulation or acoustic tiles).

But the wool grower could benefit from recognition that sheep produce a natural product that can be used to create floor coverings with the attributes that people say they want.

Prices to the farmer would then increase.

All it took for plastic bags was 9000 signatures.

Ignoring the value of natural fibre carpet is an example of not seeing the wool for the trees.

– Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. [email protected]

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