The Story Behind Girvan’s Seaweed Factory
It looms large on the outskirts of Girvan, dominating the landscape in an enviable position between road and sea. It has occupied the site for 80 years, gradually growing in size to become the imposing structure it is today.
Most people refer to it as ‘The Seaweed Factory’ or ‘The Alginate’ but I’m hoping the site manager, Stuart McRonald, can tell me a little more about this local landmark and whether those unofficial titles are anywhere near accurate. Having worked at the plant for 18 years, who better to enlighten me?
He begins with a brief summary of its history.
“It was set up as the Ministry of Works in 1943 by the government as part of the war effort. There was a shortage of raw materials around the world as a consequence of the war. The government believed they could do something with alginate from brown seaweed to replace some of those raw materials.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking the site was chosen because of its proximity to the sea and the potential for harvesting seaweed, but this was not the case.
“It was located here because the site was far enough away from the main population base which was under threat from German aircraft at the time… we’re around 60 miles from Glasgow. And to produce alginate they needed a large supply of fresh water so that’s why the site was located here. There’s a lot of fresh water available from the various rivers and water sources around Girvan.”
Not for the seaweed, then?
“The commercial volumes of brown seaweed from Scotland aren’t available now, we’ve never bought any from this area. At one time it was either from the Western Isles or Orkney. We did many years ago receive large amounts from the Uists but over time the volumes dwindled away. It’s hard to get people in the islands now to collect the seaweed. And it was never guaranteed when it would happen. You could go days and weeks when there was nothing on the beaches to collect.”
When Stuart first joined the company in 2005, the seaweed was being procured from key locations including Ireland, Iceland and Australia.
“They were essentially joint ventures. But we also bought seaweed from the open market, mainly from Chile.”
According to Stuart, the company has grown quite rapidly since those very early days, aided by the fact that the alginate market has been fairly stable for a number of years.
“After the war it was changed from the Ministry of Works into Alginate Industries Ltd. That’s why people still refer to it as ‘The Alginate’, alginate being the raw material that we derive from seaweed and that is used for the products that we make.
“In 1979, it merged with AIL & Kelco under the ownership of Merck. That business changed to Monsanto in 1994, then in 1999 it changed to ISP. In 2008 it changed to FMC BioPolymer and then in 2017 it was acquired by Dupont. Then in 2021 it merged with IFF, International Flavours & Fragrances.”
With eight owners in 80 years it’s no surprise people were unsure of exactly who owned the company and what it did, the lack of signage offering little or no insight.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had the name signposted as prominently as we have today,” Stuart confirms. “That was a deliberate attempt to tell people that we are now a part of IFF.”
IFF is a global leader in food, beverage, health, biosciences and sensorial experiences. A truly global organisation, of which the Girvan operation is a small part. It is, however, a major employer in the town.
“I don’t think people realise how big the IFF organisation is with around 24, 000 employees globally. There has been significant investment in the site, so that’s good. We have around 60 employees… and we’ve got a very low staff turnover, so I think that counts for something. I think the average age of employees on site is close to 53 and the average length of service is close to 25 years. The people that come to work here tend to be here for a while. Most of them are from Girvan.”
The factory operates three shifts over five days and is open from 6am on a Monday to midnight on a Friday evening. Of the 60 staff members, 21 work a shift pattern with the remainder working standard daytime hours. Machinery wise, there are six blenders and three mills on site producing 6,500 metric tonnes of blending and 500 metric tonnes of milling.
Stuart goes on to tell me about a significant period in the company’s history.
“Under the ownership of FMC, they had another site in Haugesund, Norway that had the same alginate manufacturing process. Around 2009 they consolidated the two sites. They decided to expand one in terms of the alginate extraction process and expand another site in terms of the blending, milling and distribution. In the case of Girvan, they closed the extraction side which led to about 100 job losses at the time, but they expanded the blending and milling and invested significantly in that, and that’s what we do today.”
He clarifies by informing me that the two processes mentioned are the two main parts to the IFF alginate business: extraction of the alginate from the seaweed followed by the milling and blending into the finished products. Those products include pharmaceutical, food and specialty/industrial applications.
“Alginate is very good for gelling, thickening or stabilising in foodstuffs. It’s also very good for controlled release in drugs. In the past, if you had a heart issue you might have to take three or four tablets a day, now they include a specific alginate within the tablets. It’s controlled release so you only take one tablet a day.
“It’s also used in industrial applications such as welding applications. And if you go to the dentist and the dentist makes an impression of your teeth… there’s a good chance the dental impression material will be made from alginate.”
But the main applications produced in Girvan in terms of volume, are in food and drink.
“We also do other hydrocolloids here as well. Alginate is the main one but we’re also doing carrageenan from red seaweed. They have slightly different properties. And we’re doing MCC, which is microcrystalline cellulose, that’s from refined wood pulp.”
The fragrance side of the IFF business, Stuart informs me, is not handled at Girvan but rather, at other major global locations by IFF where the company is also involved in food and beverage, home and personal care, health and wellness and industrial markets.
But back to the seaweed, where is it harvested today?
“People automatically assume the seaweed is coming from here but there’s no commercial seaweed collection in the volumes that we need around here. The locations in the west coast of Ireland, the northwest fjords of Iceland and in Tasmania are global hotspots for the types of seaweeds that we need. The other major seaweed that we use now and the biggest in volume terms is the Laminaria Hyperborea from Norway. We’re working with our sister plant in Norway who are taking the seaweeds, extracting the alginate, and sending us the alginate extract in its raw form. We are then taking that… blending, milling, and testing it to our customers’ exact specifications… and then releasing it and distributing it around the world.”
The majority of the finished products are exported to South America, North America, Canada, Asia and Europe with most customers being in the food, pharmaceutical and dental market.
As with any business, it has its challenges. Most recently, of course, were the challenges thrown up by the Covid pandemic. Classed as ‘essential’ and necessary to the health and well-being of the public, the plant remained open and operative.
“We kept going without interruption. It was challenging, working at times with very small teams and credit definitely goes to the Operators… but I’m proud to say we continued through Covid without at any time spreading the virus within the factory.”
Although Covid is by no means a thing of the past, Stuart is keen to focus on the more positive aspects. Celebrating the company’s 80 years in business, for example.
“There have been so many changes over the last few years and sometimes we lose sight of these important milestones. Covid brought many challenges to us all and we are still having to live with some of these challenges today. This has made us less aware of some important milestones because our minds have been elsewhere. But we’re going to celebrate the 80-year anniversary. We’ll probably do something mid-year, that would be the plan.”
In the meantime, it’s good to get a flavour of what goes on behind those big, blue gates at IFF, or ‘The Seaweed Factory’ as I suspect it will always be known.