Adding Value to Waste Moss at Supersphag
A West Coast innovator adds value to sphagnum moss that would otherwise be discarded
Bruce Truman bought into the moss business in 1992 after a working career that included a long stint in the gold mining industry. He’s a Coaster and grew up on a dairy farm not far away from his factory.
Supersphag harvests and processes sphagnum moss for export. The West Coast business started with a process for using the “waste” moss from the traditional moss exporters who were exporting the whole dried plant, but had no market for the smaller offcuts and moss pieces. The company had developed a pressed product that was popular with plant businesses, especially orchid growers who used the moss as a component in potting mix.
That product is still part of Bruce’s business, but a new market has developed with a customer based in Minnesota who is using the NZ sphagnum as part of a system they’ve developed for treating water in pools, spas and water towers.
Sphagnum moss is one of 120 or so species of moss known as peat moss. Both the living and dead plants can hold as much as 20 times their own weight in water. The moss has branch clusters as well as stem leaves and every part of the moss has tiny networks of capillary tubes that absorb and retain the water. Water can be squeezed out and the moss is still ready to take in fluid again. It has a pH of around 4.0.
It grows in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The main competition for the NZ moss is Chile, although it also grows in Argentina and Tasmania.
The moss has had an economic value in horticulture, especially as a rooting medium for orchids because of the remarkable way it retains moisture.
In WW1 the moss was used as a dressing for wounds and proved more successful than the standard cotton dressings as the sterilised moss absorbs twice as much moisture as cotton.
Much of New Zealand’s sphagnum was traditionally sent to Japan and the Netherlands, where it is used for growing orchids. In New Zealand sphagnum moss is sustainably harvested from swamps in the South Island.
Bruce has his own block of moss north of Greymouth. He bought the 160ha block to secure a steady supply of his own moss. He also recognised that traditional moss blocks were being swallowed up by new dairy farm conversions who were taking the swampy peaty land and “flipping” or “humping and hollowing” to make it suitable for cows.
One of Bruce’s longer term aims is to make sure landowners get a good return for the moss that is taken from their blocks so as they remain as wetlands. With a viable profitable return coming from the land, they are able to compete with any other industry to deter change of land use.
Moss is harvested from the wetlands. The workers use a fork to gather up the moss and put it in bags. Bruce uses helicopters to get the product out in order to minimise the damage to the moss beds. Harvested beds are ready for another harvest between 5 and 7 years later.
Some moss businesses air dry outside on racks. Bruce sends his product to Hokitika where it is dried in a tunnel house. In the near future, drying will be done inhouse.
Once the dried moss packs come back to Bruce’s factory at Totara Flat, the moss undergoes further cleaning and processing before it is ready to be pressed as per each customers requirements into small cards or tiles.
Once they get to the customers the moss is ready for use as either a growing medium for juvenile orchids or the water treatment industry.
One of the big future clients for Supersphag is a company based in in the United States that’s using Bruce’s moss for water treatment. The company website says it was inspired by the use of sphagnum moss as a wound dressing in WW1. Apparently wounded soldiers survived in higher numbers when their wounds were dressed with the moss rather than cotton. They then discovered that the NZ West Coast moss had the characteristics they were looking for. It removes contamination, reduces and inhibits scale as well as corrosion.
The benefits to customers are reduced chemical usage, reduced water and energy and longer equipment life.
As well as industrial clients, the US Company also works with residential hot tubs, pools and ponds. Laboratory tests show that the moss inhibits the biofilm that accumulates on surfaces in a watery environment. If that biofilm can’t form, then the chlorine that is used in pools can work more effectively. Trials in swimming pools in the US have shown that there was a reduction in the use of chemicals and a drop in maintenance costs when sphagnum was introduced to the treatment system.
Other than being sterilized, there are no manufacturing processes done to the moss plant after it is harvested.
After a number of hard years dealing with a high NZ dollar and competition for traditional markets from moss grown in Chile, Bruce feels that these new markets offer an exciting and potentially stable future.