Second Chance

By Karen McIntyre, Senior Editor | April 17, 2013

Recycling gives textiles, plastic bottles a new life in nonwovens.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Whether this mantra is viewed as a way to trim costs and tighten margins, as a means to offer an enivironmentally friendly alternative to customers or both, nonwovens manufacturers are giving many products a second life and significantly reducing the amount of materials in landfills.

This trend is being seen across disposable and durable markets ranging from wipes to insulation to automotive materials to carpet backing and using recycled materials has become such a hot trend that sourcing materials to recycle has become a challenge.

Bonded Logics, Phoenix, AZ, has dealt with sourcing challenges through the formation of a second company, Phoenix Fibers, that is dedicated solely to textile waste recycling. This company sorts and recycles both pre- and post-industrial textile materials and turns them into virgin fibers that Bonded Logics—as well as external customers—use in construction materials and other airlaid nonwovens.

In addition to textile scraps, nonwovens producers are sourcing recycled polyester bottles to turn into PET-based nonwovens in a variety of industries. However demand for these bottles has been steep due to foreign demand as well as problems with recycling infrastructures in the U.S. Still, the environmental impact of recycling polyester cannot be ignored. According to the National Association for Container Resources (NAPCOR0 recycling PET reduces energy consumption by 84% and greenhouse emissions by 71% (compared to using virgin fiber). Annual recycling of 1.5 billion pounds of PET containers into fiber resulted in 46 trillion BTUs of energy saved, enough to power 486,000 homes. In terms of end results, 85 16-ounce polyester bottles will produce the fill for one sleeping bag, five two-liter bottles with produce a 72-count box of wipes and five 16-ounce bottles can make the acquisition distribution layer material for one 72-count box of diapers.

A PET Project

Poole & Company, a Greenville, SC distributor of recycled fibers and polyester fiber, has found that using recycled fibers can produce an equivalent wipe product that goes through the same testing and approvals as virgin fibers, yet it is environmentally friendly and sustainable. The company’s EcoSure recycled fiber product is made from post consumer recycled materials, which have been specifically diverted from a landfill.

The process of how a PET bottle becomes a nowoven wipe starts when the bottle is collected by independent private and public collection agencies. The PET undergoes a rigorous sorting and washing process and is ground into flake. During the fiber-making process, the flake is melted down at 290°C into liquid polymer. The liquid polymer is extruded and spun into polyester staple fiber using the same process as high-quality staple virgin fibers. The fiber is purchased and used by manufacturers to produce nonwoven fabrics, using spunlace, thermal or adhesive bonding as well as needlepunching processes.

EcoSure fibers range from 1.2 denier to 500 denier and are made from 100% PCR PET. “Very few manufacturers can make the whole gamut of denier using cycled fibers,” CEO David Poole says. “EcoSure is suitable for hygiene, industrial products, geotextiles and all types of textile products

“EcoSure is a very good fit for single-use items like wipes where earth-friendly and sustainable issues are problematic. Wipes with virgin content are used once and thrown away. Wipes made with EcoSure fibers essentially have two lives.”

Already this year, Foss Manufacturing, a Hampton, NH-based manufacturer of needlepunch nonwovens has kept 350 million plastic bottles out of landfills thanks to its commitment of using recycled materials. The company’s Eco-fi high quality polyester fiber is made from 100% certified recycled plastic polyester products. It can be blended with other fibers such as cotton or wood for enhanced qualities and can be used in any textile products. In fact, the bulk of Foss’ needlepunch output, which is applied to automotive materials, the craft markets and a number of other markets, used Eco-fi.

According to company executives, the usage of Eco-fi is expected to grow in sync with the company’s manufacturing output. Last year,  a second manufacturing plant in Rome, GA came onstream. This $15 million, 220,000 square-foot site brings Foss closer to its customers, particularly in the automotives industry.

In addition to the Rome expansion, in 2012, the company added two new production lines in New Hampshire and 60 new employees and is in the process of building another two production lines that will add 50 to 60 new jobs in Hampton this year. “This is an exciting time for Foss. We are experiencing growth in all areas,” says AJ Nassar, CEO of Foss Manufacturing. “Much of this growth is being driven by our talented research and development team located in our Hampton, NH headquarters. Over the next 12-months, we will be introducing new products and technologies enabling us to expand into new markets.”

Leading the way

Also committed to using recycled bottles is the world’s largest nonwovens manucturer, Freudenberg, which as of last year, had already saved 377 million plastic bottles from landfills and helped grow its business, according to reports Freudenberg Nonwovens, headquartered in Durham, N.C., uses millions of pounds of 100% post consumer and post industrial recycled plastic a year to make environmentally sustainable materials for building and construction substrates, landscaping and weedblock materials, residential and commercial wallpaper, carpet backings, filtration devices, and automotive floor mats and carpeting. Specifically, within Freudenberg’s spunlaid division, its product Lutradur ECO is a polyester nonwoven fabric made from 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic and executives report that demand for the product was a contributing factor to its restarting an idle spunbond line in late 2011. This move resulted in the creation of 16 new jobs at the Durham plant. The plant is the Freudenberg Spunweb Company factory.

“We are proud to offer Lutradur ECO, a unique green product produced through a sustainable, ecologically-sensitive process,” says John McNabb, North American general manager of Freudenberg Nonwovens. “We have invested years of time and resources to commercialize this product. In most applications, Lutradur ECO performs as well as our existing Lutradur product.”

Development of Lutradur ECO has evolved over the past 10 years as Freudenberg sought ways to help its construction, landscape and filtration customers achieve coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits for their use of sustainable products. Material and manufacturing engineers pushed to increase the amount of post industrial recycled (PIR) material used to produce Freudenberg’s traditional Lutradur material from 15% to 90%. When the company migrated to 100% PCR, Lutradur ECO material was born.

Lutradur and Lutradur ECO are used to produce building and construction substrates; landscaping and weed block materials; residential and commercial wallpaper and carpet backings; automotive floor mats and carpeting; and specialized filtration devices.

However, McNabb admits that sourcing bottles to be recycled, particularly in the U.S. is challenging, because recycling efforts are not as strong as in Europe. However, Freudenberg, like Bonded Logics, has a sister company, in Macon, GA. This company, Freudenberg Texbond,  recycles more than one million plastic drink bottles a day and uses them in part tot produce nonwoven roofing membrane and building materials. These products address soundproofing, waterproofing and thermal insulation challenges for the construction industry while helping customers meet green purchasing initiatives. Texbond processes the plastic from bottles into polyester fibers, which are further processed into fabric.

Other efforts from Freudenberg in the use of recycled fibers include the production of nonwovens for the automotives market through its partner, Freudenberg Vitech. It manufactures fabric in its Hopkinsville, KY, facility for automotive headliners, sun visors, seat backs and packaging trays using fabric made from 100% post-consumer PET bottle scrap

Additionally, Freudenberg Household Products, headquartered in an environmentally certified building in Aurora, IL, manufactures household and institutional cleaning products, including recycled broom fibers. Earlier this year, the company established a joint venture in Aurora with SP Berner Plastics Group S.L to consolidate production of recycled mop and broom components such as handles and bristles. FHP-Berner is hiring more than 50 employees to run the new operations, which were previously held in other global production locations.

Keeping up with Cotton

Phoenix, Bonded Logics, and its sister company Phoenix Fibers, has been keeping textiles out of landfills for a generation. Phoenix, a company started a few years ago, is a textile recycler, turning pre- and post-consumer textile material into regenerated cotton. This cotton is used by Bonded Logics—as well as external customers—in nonwoven and other materials.

According to Sean Desmond, director of sales and marketing, the bulk of Bonded Logics’ nonwoven materials is used in insulation for the construction industry.

“We really don’t use any virgin material,” he says. “Everything we use is either pre consumer or post consumer fibers.”

When the company started making recycled insulation 11 years ago, the green conversation wasn’t a major topic around the nation but the business model made great economic sense. Since then, the green tide has turned.

In recent years, Bonded Logics’ Ultratouch denim insulation, an insulation product that is made from recycled denim, has emerged as one of its largest products.  “When we first introduced it 11 years ago, people thought we were crazy. Fast forward to now and we are selling it in retailers nationwide,” Desmond says.

To help it source denim—and help others—Bonded Logics has partnered with Cotton Incorporated in a program known as “Cotton. From Blue to Green.” This initiative encourages people to donate used jeans, which Bonded Logics turns into UltraTouch to be used by Habitat for Humanity affiliates.

Beyond insulation products, Bonded Logics has diversified into mattresses and other bedding components as well as acoustical products and is seeking additional growth opportunities as foam replacement materials.

“We are constantly getting into new areas and we are always looking for new industries,” Desmond says.

Another company giving cotton a new life is the wipes maker Rockline Industries. In the U.K., the company currently offers the environmentally friendly Regenerated Cotton Wipe, which was named the recipient of a Visionary Award, recognizing innovation in consumer products,  a few years ago.

The substrate for the Regenerated Cotton Wipe is made from 100% biodegradable materials — the blend is 25% Lenzing Tencel and 75% cotton. The cotton is produced from the post-industrial waste from the manufacturing of T-shirts, and the recovery process to regenerate the cotton is energy and water friendly. The product was originally developed as a private label product for U.K. retailer Sainsbury’s.

Leigh Fibers focuses on recycled textiles

Leigh Fibers has made an entire business out of sourcing recycled fibers and selling it into new markets—whether they be automotives , sound insluations or carpet padding.

According to Mark Lehner, director of business development, the reduction textile waste in the U.S. is largely indebted to the nonwovens industry as textile manufacturers not only try to keep their landfill outputs low but also to make money anywhere, and any way, they can.

“I would say that our entire textile waste industry in the U.S. is geared 90% toward nonwovens in one fashion or the other and automotive being the biggest part of that,” he says.

While Leigh does sell a little prime polyester, its main business is taking textile waste of any sort—rages, cuttings, carpets or anything they can get their hands on, and bringing it back to fiber form. And, about 90% of its customers business are in the nonwovens padding market, making products that goes under floor carpets, in automotives, etc.

Calling his company the largest textile waste recycler in the country, Lehner says there isn’t a fiber type his company does not deal with. Their suppliers, many of which dot the I-40 corridor in North Carolina, are wovens and nonwovens producers and converters for the furniture industry and other durable markets. Instead of putting their scraps in the dumpster, they sell them to companies like Leigh Fibers.

“It has gotten to the point where companies are putting next to nothing in the dumpster,” Lehner says. “They call it ‘valuable waste.’ No one likes to sue the word trash.”

The bulk of the fibers Leigh recycles go into durable markets like furniture and automotives, Leigh says. “Diaper manufacturers, generally speaking, are not using the recycled materials because it is difficult to get it clean, or uniform, for them to make consistent product. Maybe we will see more down the road as prime fiber prices continue to be erratic.”

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