I didn’t expect to be visiting a wool scourer. There’s a view in crafting circles of Australia that wool scouring has left Australia. It turns out that scouring does still exist. Victoria Wool Processors was as interested in having me visit, as I was in visiting them.
David, the managing director of Victoria Wool Processors (VWP) showed me around the factory. He was open about the environmental challenges of scouring, and passionate about the potential of wool as a natural material.
VWP purchases wool directly from Australian farmers, to meet orders from overseas mills. The raw wool arrives compressed in bales and is broken up before scouring.
VWP use one million litres of potable water a day as well as 100,000 litres of bore water. That’s down from 1.3 million litres of potable water during Melbourne’s last drought. David is working to use less potable water. The alternative is bore water, which needs desalination.
The raw wool drops into the first scouring bowl, a dark mix of greasy wool, detergent and dirty water. David surprised me by explaining that at this stage, dirty water is better for cleaning the wool! The wool is agitated and moved around by metal forks. It then passes through rollers to press out the water, grease and dirt. The wool drops into a new scouring bowl to start the process again. In total, there are seven scouring bowls in VWP’s system.
David explained that fresh water enters the system at the last, cleanest bowl. It travels down the system by gravity; each bowl’s height is lower than the previous bowl. Eventually it reaches the first, dirtiest scouring bowl. Here the water is drawn off to separate out the dirt and grease. That water is then recycled back into the dirtiest scouring bowl.
The separated wool grease is packed up for export to make into lanolin. Lanolin is used for personal care products, lubricants and even vitamin D suppliments for livestock. It’s a useful ingredient, and contributes to 50% of VWP’s income.
The remaining solid waste is collected in huge piles at the back of VWP’s property and composted. After 6 months the grass seeds in the mix have died off and its likely to be a useful farm fertiliser.
Scouring gives a 52% yield, which means that around 48% of raw wool is actually grease, sweat and muck. Wow. The scouring process removes most, but not all vegetable matter. Depending on the end use, vegetable matter is spun off during top making, or VWP removes it by carbonising the fibre. 95% of VWP wool is scoured for bedding products, the remaining 5% is carbonised for fashion fibres.
During carbonising, the fibre drops into a sulphuric acid and water bath, then neutralised in an alkaline bath. This process repeats two more times; the acid dries the seed. The next stage heats the fibre up to 110 degrees celcius, which dries the seed further. Finally, the fibre drops into a line of crushers, which reduce the seed to a dust that is removed.
The acid bath is recycled for two weeks. Only the water in the bath needs topping up because it evaporates over this time. The acid and alkaline baths are combined to neutralise them before disposal. The seed dust from the crushers is pure carbon, so that is added to the solid waste to aid composting. The workers in this section wore face masks because the air is dusty.
I asked David why the extra effort of carbonising is worth it. He explained that it softens the fibres, which is useful with fashion products. The process is also very good at removing vegetable matter. This is a particular issue for Australia, because of the sticky burrs we have in the paddocks.
Whether it is just scoured, or carbonised as well, the wool is bleached with hydrogen peroxide.
The drying machine contains huge perforated barrels. The wool drops on the outside of the first barrel and air sucks from within. This spreads the wool flat across the surface of the barrel and dries it. As the barrel rotates, the wool passes to the next barrel, moving the fibres around so it dries evenly.
The dry wool is then sucked up into a pipe that runs along the ceiling of the factory. This gets it to over to the baling machine in another part of the factory. It’s quite Willy Wonka-esque!
Walking over to this section of the factory felt like Christmas. The dried wool dropped from the ceiling pipe into one of several huge piles on the ground. It was gorgeous. The wool is quality checked one last time before being passed to the baling machine.
The bales are so heavy, David has strict safety rules for how they should be handled.
The business of scouring
Victoria Wool Processors scour 3% of Australia’s total wool clip. The company employs 17 people. Its activities generate the same level of waste as 80,000 people (per year?). Labour and waste disposal are David’s two major costs of business.
Currently most VWP product sells directly to mills in South East Asia and China. Their production calendar is organised around the Northern hemisphere buying cycle. David would like to expand sales to Europe, a market that demands solid eco credentials. It’s a good time to do this. At current exchange rates, the cost of scouring in Australia is competitive with China.
It was fascinating to see VWP’s machinery in action. I felt welcomed by the staff, who were curious about my visit. They clearly had a comfortable relationship with their boss. I can see that David is motivated by environmental as well as commercial concerns. It’s interesting to see the solutions he’s come up with so far.