The Little Wipe That Could

August 17, 2005

nonwovens begin to 'wipe up' the competition

nonwovens are beginning to ‘wipe up’ the competition as they continue to expand their marketshare

With the worldwide market for nonwoven wiping products estimated in the $700 million range according to some industry estimates—and with an expected growth rate of 5-6% per year—nonwovens are making quite a name for themselves. Throughout the market— whether it be on the consumer, cleaning or industrial end—many nonwoven roll goods producers are reporting sales growth and are beginning to move into niche areas. Across the board, the emphasis is on continuing to develop new products to meet the demands of both customers and end users.

In the case of baby wipes, one key trend is a desire for premium quality products from both branded and private label customers. “Manufacturers of both air laid and spunlaced products have introduced higher basis weight wipes to compete,” explained marketing manager Jill Langevin of air laid producer Buckeye Technologies, Memphis, TN. Tom Marth, vice president sales for Green Bay Nonwovens, Green Bay, WI—a manufacturer of both apertured and nonapertured resin bonded nonwovens—agrees. “Customers want products with a good hand, softness and fairly good tensile strength. Softness has really been one of the key things they have been looking at, as well as ways of improving it.”

Another trend that has affected both baby and cleaning wipes involves packaging. U.S. Nonwovens, Brentwood, NY, has seen a trend in private label packaging toward brighter and branded-looking packaging for retail markets. “Everyone used to think of supermarket private label products as just a generic product,” said Shervin Zade, vice president of sales for U.S. Nonwovens. “Now private label products look just as beautiful as brand name products and you have trouble telling them apart.”

In the private label baby wipes area, manufacturers are trying to keep up with branded label products through new packaging features aimed at consumer convenience such as “pop-up” formats. “Baby wipes just used to be stacked and would pull off one at a time,” Ms. Langevin of Buckeye explained. “In pop-up packaging, pulling up one wipe draws the next one up, like a box of tissues.”

Wiping Out Wovens
On the industrial end of the nonwoven wipes market, the biggest trend has been attempts by manufacturers to increase the marketshare held by nonwoven wipes over competitors, rags and rental shop towels. The latter dominates about half of the industrial wiping market, while nonwovens represent around a third and rags take the remaining marketshare. Over the years, however, nonwovens have made significant strides in increasing their marketshare, mostly at the expense of rags, thanks to their ability to be customized to meet the changing needs of customers. “Overall, the markets we serve are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are demanding wiping products that serve a particular need,” said W. Keith Beddingfield, director “Sontara” wiping products for DuPont, Wilmington, DE. “The game is not to take one fundamental product and make it fit into lots of different places, but to create a more engineered type of product that fits the application it is going to be used for.” Mr. Beddingfield continued by stating that this mass customization is not possible for rags and rental shop towels since their characteristics—strength, texture, absorbency—cannot be easily changed. “This makes nonwovens a better candidate for products when faced with environmental needs,” he said.

Concern over the environment is another recent trend affecting the industrial wipes market and—according to some manufacturers—is one of the reasons why nonwovens have not taken marketshare from rental shop towels. Mr. Beddingfield explained this is because many people are used to rental shop towels and they have a misconception about the environmental impact of shop towels that need to be laundered after use.

Ralph Solarski, manufacturing market segment manager for Kimberly-Clark, Roswell, GA, agrees, “It is very important that we as an industry educate users about the potential liabilities that they have with rental shop towels used with hazardous solvents. You cannot escape Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations and liability if you are a user of hazardous solvents.”

Although the conception has been that disposable products are more hazardous to the environment than rags and rental shop towels, this has changed in part to new studies by the EPA. According to such studies, industrial laundries discharge more than 13 million pounds of hazardous contaminants into public water treatment systems every year and 80% of that comes from the waste water of laundered rental shop towels. “Launderable products put a strain on the environment with the disposal of water and soap,” said Mr. Zade of U.S. Nonwovens. “Disposables, if they degrade in the environment, are a better choice.”

Environmental Rewards
One nonwovens producer whose sales have been helped by all the attention to the environment is Sorbent Products, Somerset, NJ, which manufacturers nonwoven sorbents for cleaning up oil and chemicals in both environmental and industrial settings. Pointing to recent concerns over dumping, Mark Johnson, vice president sales and marketing of Sorbent Products reported that companies are starting to use polypropylene products as to eliminate chemicals without damaging the environment. “As people go from environmental concerns to clean plant and higher productivity issues, polypropylene makes more sense for the clean-up of spills and drips because it can be incinerated,” he explained.

Another company looking at the recent interest in the environment is PGI Nonwovens, Dayton, NJ. According to president and COO Jim Schaeffer, some manufacturers are looking to reuse nonwoven wipes to generate a type of in-between category in an attempt to help the environment. “This may provide some additional opportunities for nonwovens as people start thinking about the concept of being environmentally friendly,” he added.

At the same time, addressing customers’ environmental concerns highlights the many tangible benefits of nonwovens over woven materials, explained Doug Reid, business manager wipes products for Dexter Corporation, Windsor Locks, CT. “Disposability, convenience and cleanliness are just some of the more apparent benefits of nonwovens and they are improving quickly in each of these areas,” he stated. “There are already successful products on the market that offer wipes users the option of biodegradability and/or flushability to address environmental concerns.”

Environmental awareness is not only being reported in the U.S., but internationally as well. According to Susan Stansbury, nonwovens marketing manager for Fort James, Green Bay, WI, Japan has expressed a greater interest in the use of air laid nonwoven fabrics for its oshibori, or “hot towels,” over launderable woven towels due to the impact laundering has on the environment. “There has been growth in our wipes segment because of this,” she added.

Everybody Has To Wipe
As is the case throughout the nonwovens industry, the wiping market is becoming increasingly global. This can be seen in increased export sales to European markets from North American-based manufacturers. “Europe is growing expedentially, while the U.S. market is flat with a 4-5% growth, so all of our sales increase has come from overseas,” stated U.S. Nonwovens’ Mr. Zade. “In the U.S. people want low-cost, low-quality, products, but overseas customers are looking for more quality and they are willing to spend money for it,” he added. He went on to say that the market in Asia has been very competitive this year, while there is a small but stable market in South America.

The market in Europe for baby wipes is different than the North American market due to the fact that the major branded and private label products use spunlaced material, making it a tough area for air laids. “Sales of air laid for baby wipes in Europe have not decreased, but they probably have not increased either,” stated Buckeye sales manager Frank Iezzi. As for the Far Eastern market, only Japan has significant market penetration of baby wipes and again the dominant material for them is spunlaced. In this region, Buckeye sells air laid material for both oshibori towels (see this month’s cover) and cooking paper, which is used to absorb excess grease from fried foods. Mr. Iezzi also discussed new wiping market opportunities that are slowly being established such as a commercial disposable disinfectant wipe for kitchen and household use that has become quite popular.

Making It A Clean World
Although antimicrobial wipes have been popular in Europe for some time, this idea is now starting to become an influence on the nonwoven wipes market in the U.S., as these types of wipes are under development by a number of North American roll goods manufacturers. One company active in this area is U.S. Nonwovens, which will be releasing an antimicrobial wipe that has the ability to convey to the user—through a structural change—when the potency of the antimicrobial has elapsed. The wipe, which targets food preparation, medical/hygiene and retail markets, is intended to give a sense of confidence to the user who is relying on the agent inside the wipe to be active while in use.

K-C offers a wiping system for the food service industry under the “WetTask” brand name. According to Mr. Solarski, this system enables the user to pre-saturate wipes in the product’s bucket with their own cleaning solution. The wipers dispense through a center-pull dispensing port. With this system, cross-contamination is minimized because each pre-saturated wiper is clean and fresh. “Users want a wiping system that is more hygienic than the traditional rag-in-a-bucket approach where the cleaning solution gets used over and over again, oftentimes becoming dirty yet still being used for cleaning tables and other surfaces,” Mr.Solarski explained.

At PGI, the company has started manufacturing its “Chix” brand wipes with a value-added feature called “Microban” for killing germs and bacteria within the wipe. According to the company’s Mr. Schaeffer, wipes sales for the first quarter were up 31% and 38% in the second quarter. “The addition of Microban is one of the advantages and drivers that helped us increase sales,” he said.

So why the sudden worry over germs? According to Buckeye, the media and consumer product companies have helped to sensitize the general public to the issue of cleanliness and infection. “Growing up 20 years ago, we did not worry about a lot of the things that we worry about today,” stated Ms. Langevin. “There is more sensitization about the hygiene issue and it can only benefit companies who like to target specialty applications such as antibacterial wipes and so on.”

I Think I Can. . . I Think I Can
Speaking of niche markets, many manufacturers see this as the future direction of the nonwoven wipes market. “There is a lot of ‘niching’ going on. For example, companies that have been very strong in the baby wipes market are now branching out into more niche segments,” explained Ms. Stansbury of Fort James. Ms. Langevin of Buckeye agreed, “There have been a lot of specialized wet wipes emerging for niche markets. Manufacturers discovered that consumers are using baby wipes for different types of applications and they are taking advantage of this by developing wipes that strictly target specific uses.” Examples of niche markets include cosmetic, antimicrobial, sports and home cleaning wipes. “There are a number of products out there in the home cleaning area that have just been introduced and will continue to grow that whole market,” stated Mr. Marth of Green Bay. “I think there is going to be a big increase within the next year or so in the home cleaning area, similar to what happened a number of years back.”

Green Bay is also seeing a possible adoption in the U.S. of the current nonwoven technology of choice in Europe for wipes—spunlaced. “If spunlacing comes over to the U.S. and any of the major branded companies decide to use it for baby wipes, I think a lot of private label companies would follow suit,” Mr. Marth said. According to Mr. Marth, this would bring about a significant increase in the market. Such a transition would receive a warm welcome from Green Bay Nonwovens, which is adding an 8000-ton-per-year spunlacing line to its plant in May 2000. “Spunlace is a big growth area and we do not see a problem selling our capacity in the future,” he concluded.

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