Kenaf leaf.
Kenaf leaf

Ford Motor Company made headlines when it replaced oil-based fibers with natural ones in the 2013 Ford Escape — manufactured in Louisville — to reduce weight, increase fuel economy and boost overall sustainability.

A laudable move, no doubt. But a pair of Louisville entrepreneurs want Ford to be able to cut the environmental impact of its vehicles even further.

Kenaf is a tropical plant that looks like bamboo but is in the hibiscus and jute families. Its fibers are routinely used in green building materials, and it is prized as a sustainable source of fiber, oils and seeds because of its rapid growth. It can grow 12-14 feet in less than six months.

Today, kenaf used for production of building materials — including tree-free wood and bio-plastics — is grown in Asia. So, even though the material is eco-friendly and sustainable, the carbon footprint of importing it more than negates the environmental good it can bring.

EcoBridge Industries, a startup located in the WaterStep building, wants to change all that (read about that partnership here). Sean Vandevander and Elisa Owen started the company last June to partner with farmers and manufacturers, sourcing locally grown kenaf from the farmers, processing it and selling the resulting materials to the manufacturer.

EcoBridge is currently processing the kenaf in a vacant church in Portland. The cost of labor is $10 an hour.

Vandevander and Owen are bootstrapping it right now, but they did have a successful $5,000 Kiva Zip loan raise.

Kenaf is known for being a very easy plant to raise. Vandevander says the crop requires no fertilizer or pesticides, and that “it has virtually no environmental impact.” Unlike other plants used to make natural building materials, kenaf is not a food or feedstock like soy beans or wheat.

Sean Vandevander and Elisa Owen | EcoBridge
Sean Vandevander and Elisa Owen | EcoBridge

The growing season is from May to the first frost. The only drawback to U.S.-grown kenaf is that in our climate, the plant will not flower and seed.

Vandevander notes that because Louisville is within a day’s drive of 65 percent of the United States, any building materials created here would have a smaller carbon footprint than, say, materials created on either coast. He says there is an increasing demand for natural building products and that Honest Home on East Market Street sees customers who travel from six hours away because they’re the closest retail outlet for some sustainable building materials.

He also hopes if he can build EcoBridge’s supply chain enough, Louisville could “attract companies who want to do green building.” Portland is a perfect place for light industry, he explains, and it’s a distressed area. Louisville could be the place where people grow green materials, process them, manufacture with them, and then use our robust logistics systems to ship the items.

The market is growing rapidly. By 2016, natural fiber-based composites will be a $3.6 billion industry. The industry is seeing 10 percent annual growth.