A complex with a timber mill, plywood factory and bioplastic refinery could occupy 30ha of a new 217ha area near Marton if it is zoned industrial.
The prospect excites Rangitīkei mayor Andy Watson and NZ Bio Forestry chief executive and founder Wayne Mulligan - but there are a lot of jigsaw pieces to put together first.
In November Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones put $380,000 towards the scientific research needed to test the feasibility of the project. NZ Bio Forestry (NZBF) put in that much and more, Mulligan said.
The proposed, and as-yet-unnamed, new industrial area is bounded by Wings Line, Makirikiri Rd and State Highway 1. Most of it is owned by Tim and Daniel Whale, Watson said.
It needs a district plan change to go ahead. That process is awaiting a second round of submissions, before an independent mediator decides whether a hearing is needed.
The plan change could be agreed by the end of February or early March, Watson said. After that resource consent would be needed by the facilities in the complex.
They would likely arrive in stages, with a log yard, de-barker and timber mill before the refinery and plywood plant.
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Watson said the venture would be financed by "a mix of overseas investment and technology, Massey University, iwi and regional investors".
The new businesses will need customers, and Mulligan is working on that.
"We are meeting with companies that have made pledges to move their packaging from petroleum to outside sources."
The Marton site is his top choice in New Zealand. It is near Palmerston North and Whanganui, near Crown Research Institutes and Massey University, on the main trunk railway line and near SH1.
A $7 million to $10m upgrade would be needed for Marton's "neglected" railway infrastructure. Timber could be railed in and out, getting a lot of trucks off the road.
Marton is also near a lot of forests with a lot of wood.
"There are just under two million cubic tonnes per year coming through Whanganui, Rangitīkei and the Horizons Region. I'm very confident that will continue," Mulligan said.
If the complex is successful, Marton could be just the start.
"It could be the first of seven to eight plants across New Zealand to convert into a bio-economy."
NZBF is a technology company, Mulligan said. Instead of valuing trees for their fibre, it would "take the tree back to its chemical form" and produce polymers of lactic acid (PLAs) used in bioplastic.
Bark from the logs would go through a process called torrefaction and become biocoal, used to fuel the plants and also exported. Cross-laminated plywood would be needed in an expanded and smarter building industry.
Wood waste such as sawdust and chips would go through a "brewing" process where enzymes would convert it into PLAs. They would probably be sent to Palmerston North for further processing and use in food packaging.
A lot of stand-alone timber mills in the region have closed. Mulligan said this one would be stronger, as part of a larger complex.
The complex could provide high-value jobs, investment and rates for the district, Watson said. He's also pleased Marton could have a role in solving problems caused by plastic.
Mulligan is based in Wellington and says NZBF is a "virtual" team of people in Singapore, Taiwan and across New Zealand.