From Mineral Fibres to Hemp Fibres: The Story of a Passionate Hemp Entrepreneur

In Asbestos, a small town in southeastern Quebec that owes its name to the mineral fibre that once made it prosperous, a new fibre plant has opened its doors in March 2018 to produce environmentally sound and healthy insulation panels made of hemp fibres. This plant is the latest initiative of Sébastien Bélec, an inspired entrepreneur with passion, imagination and determination.

Bélec, a trained biologist started his career as an ornithologist, observing birds’ migratory patterns in the Lower St. Lawrence for Quebec’s Department of Forest, Wildlife and Parks from 1992 to 1998. Due to frequent and lengthy periods away from home at a time when he was starting his family, he quickly realized that a change of career would be a wise choice and joined the construction industry for the next five years.

Out of his concern for genuineness, in 2002, he launched Étoffe Rustique, a furniture company that specialized in furniture made of natural materials (wood and natural colours) rather than composites. This was his first experience in transforming his love for nature into natural products. Today, the business no longer produces furniture but has become a retail outlet for a number of products, some of which are hemp-related.

While working on construction sites he experienced the discomfort of working with fibreglass insulation and he explored the idea of producing less harmful and healthier construction materials. His quest for healthy plant-based materials was long and tortuous and was a case of sequential discovery. Through repeated visits to France, where hemp-based construction has been flourishing for the past 20 years, he learned about such construction techniques and products. This led him to Technichanvre, in Riec-sur-Belon, France, and their specialized courses of hemp solutions for building. Over time, this has developed into a continuing relationship from which he can draw on a vast experience in support of his initiatives.

 

MEM Inc. (Matériaux Écologiques pour la Maison)

In 2006, after realizing that the hemp building materials he discovered in France were not available in Canada, Bélec launched MEM Inc., a company dedicated to manufacturing environmentally sound building materials, i.e. hemp-based. He began production in 2010 using imported fibres from France and outsourced the manufacturing to a Montreal producer of recycled products made out of used jeans. One day per month the plant produced 6,000-10,000 square feet of hemp insulation panels of various thicknesses (3.5 inches and 5.5 inches).

In 2011, Bélec presented his hemp insulation panels at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo held in Toronto, Canada, where he won first prize for the greenest product. This is one of the most important conferences in the building industry, bringing together builders, architects and manufacturers. This yielded instant recognition for Bélec and MEM. Unfortunately, in 2012 the plant burned down leaving the firm with a demand to fill and no way to produce these products. At the time, annual sales had reached $100,000 for panels principally aimed at the residential construction market.

Determined to continue forward despite this setback, Bélec found a new contractor in North Carolina with a plant that also specialized in recycling materials. This enabled him to continue the production of hemp-based insulation materials and processes. But now the issue was that while the plant was located in the United States, the market for products was still predominantly found in the Canadian construction industry and driven by builders responding to the demand of ecologically minded individuals, rather than building material retailers and wholesalers. Manufacturing continued in the U.S. until 2015, when the plant was purchased by a company uninterested in continuing this relationship. MEM was then forced to seek a more permanent manufacturing solution elsewhere.

A business plan was drafted for presentation to various funding agencies. Although the plant was initially meant to be built in the Lower Saint Lawrence Valley, it was finally built in Asbestos, a town in search of a new industrial base after the demise of the asbestos fibre industry, and ready to provide assistance for this new industry. With the new plant, a new company called NatureFibres was formed.

The cost of this new plant was $3.5 million. It was financed through equity of $600,000 from other Bélec companies and friends, a $1.1 million loan from Investissement Québec and commissioned by the Government to manage the funds it had awarded the municipality to finance its conversion from asbestos dependence to a broader industrial base. The project also benefited from various cooperative ventures namely VIVACO and Desjardins www.desjardins.com, Quebec’s powerful Credit Union movement with a $765,000 loan. VIVACO is a coop member of the federation of coops La Fédérée, the largest farmer and consumer coop in Québec, with more than 100,000 members and annual sales of $9.2 billion. Lately, La Fédérée acquired BMR, a network of 325 home renovation centres across Quebec, Ontario and Eastern Canada. This association will provide a readily accessible market for NatureFibre’s insulation panels. In the coming months it will begin targeting 20 stores, within the network that already focus on green building materials. Desjardins granted a $765,000 loan.

The plant is currently operating only on a three-day a week at 95 m2/hour of insulation panels of varying thicknesses (equivalent to insulating 4 houses). The plant is still in its commissioning phase and Bélec estimates he could easily increase the capacity to 200 m2/hour without increasing its costs. He also anticipates breaking even at a rate of production of 3 days/week.  So, his immediate challenge is to widen his original client base (Quebec, Ontario and the New England states), which should be enhanced through his association with the BMR group and similar efforts in the US market. The next challenge will be to ensure his supply of raw materials, namely hemp straw.

 

EcoFibre BSL

Over the course of 2010-15, Bélec struggled to source his hemp fibre in Canada, where all North American decortication plants were found at the time. Only two experimental plants were in operation, Innotech’s plant in Vegreville, Alberta and Lanaupôle’s plant in Lavaltrie, North of Montreal, each capable of processing 1-2 tons of hemp straw per hour. A much larger plant (8-10 tons/hour) has been in development in Gilbert Plains Manitoba since 2010 by Plains Industrial Processing and was still not during this period. Since no plant could provide a regular supply of fibre for his insulation panel plant at a competitive price, Bélec concluded that he himself had to get involved in the production and decortication of hemp straw to supply his needs and replace costly imports from France.

 

He chose to design a decortication plant of small capacity (2-4 tons per day) that produced high quality fibre meeting the requirements of his insulation panel facility. The plant is basically a roller mill, rather standard in the industry, but he added cleaning equipment to ensure that the fibre would be of the highest quality, with the length required by the matting plant and containing less than 5% shiv. In addition to fibre and hurd, the principal products of decortication, the dust is collected and pressed into pellets for the horticultural market or as powder for spraying or rendering.

 

His first decortication plant located in Trois Pistoles, Quebec, had a capacity of 2 tons per day. The second plant just commissioned in Asbestos achieved 4 tons per day, and a third plant being set up in Lac-St-Jean will also be of similar capacity. Bélec is confident that he can increase the capacity of such plants to 7-8 tons per day simply by streamlining operations and improving controls. These plants presently sell for C$400,000 and have a modest operating cost (essentially two workers and utility charges). At current prices, these small plants are fully amortized in 4-5 years. The plants are produced by EcoFibre, which can produce three such plants per year. The plants are sold with a guaranteed purchase of the fibre and hurd for production within a reasonable range from the matting plant.

 

These smaller decortication units fit in a broader strategy to supply his insulation matting plant NatureFibre. Such units, capable of processing 1,200 tons of hemp straw per year, (from 500-600 acres), would be suitable for larger farms or a group of smaller farms. The first benefit would be adding value at the farm or local level. The second benefit would be to reduce the carbon footprint of moving large quantities of straw over long distances. For NatureFibres, the advantage is to diversify and secure its supply sources. Hemp-lime construction is gaining popularity in Quebec and Ontario, and the need for hurd is growing, so these small units have a ready market for their fibre and hurd.

Credit Society+ Member: Paul Perrault of Global Hemp Group

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