There’s no doubt about it. The nonwovens industry is evolving. As the price of petro-based raw materials like polypropylene and polyester continue to be high and more consumers develop an environmentally friendly consciousness, new fiber technologies are emerging, creating nonwovens with attributes never seen before.
Whether the demand is for a product that is softer, lighter, less expensive, biodegradable, sustainable, stretchier or whatever, fiber suppliers are developing products to meet it. From industry standbys like polypropylene and viscose to less traditional fibers like one developed from corn fermentation or using recycled soda bottles, fibers for nonwovens have undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years.
For instance, Fiberweb introduced a line of nonwoven fabrics that contain at least 50% renewable materials. The product line includes carded thermal bond fabrics made from Ingeo fibers from Natureworks, which were developed from sustainable resources. These fabrics are ideal for coverstock and backsheet applications in the baby diaper, feminine care and adult incontinence markets. Also included are carded resin bond fabrics that have at least 50% Ingeo fiber content for use as acquisition/distribution layers in hygiene products; spunlace nonwoven fabrics made from a blend of renewable rayon and Ingeo fibers for wipes applications and a unique bicomponent PP/PLA spunbond fabric with at least 50% NatureWorks PLA content. The coating of PP resin on each fiber ensures that the functional and converting properties of the fabric closely match PP spunbond fabrics. These fabrics are designed for a variety of applications from baby diaper topsheets to landscape fabrics.
Already, a material made by Fiberweb from Ingeo is being used in Easy Gardener WeedBlock Natural, a garden cover that has been launched at B&Q in the U.K., Bilka in Denmark,, and Home Depot in the U.S. in conjunction with Ingeo NatureWorks. Innovative WeedBlock Natural gives consumers a weed control fabric option that reduces environmental impact without sacrificing the high performance synonymous with the WeedBlock brand, according to Natureworks. Unlike its entirely oil-based predecessors, WeedBlock Natural is made from 70% Ingeo fiber in Europe and 50% Ingeo fiber in the U.S.
It’s Getting Easier To Be Green
In fact, in the past 12 months or so, use of Natureworks’ sustainable Ingeo fiber, made during a corn fermentation process, seems to have exploded with nonwovens producers launching fabric lines using the material and end users creating products touting the environmental friendliness of this material.
On the roll goods front, Suominen Nonwovens recently launched Biolace spunlace material made from a range of sustainable and/or biodegradable raw materials including Ingeo. Suominen executives describe the new line as a response to a need for products that are more eco-conscious in the nonwovens industry.
And, Ingeo fibers are creating a lot of buzz on the end user level. Italy’s Wellness Innovation Products (W.I.P.) has been selling feminine hygiene and other disposable goods containing the fibers for several years already. Marco Benedetti, W.I.P.’s general manager, has become a strong proponent of the use of Ingeo in creating sustainable, environmentally friendly products that can biodegrade under the right landfill conditions. And, Method wipes using Ingeo are currently rolling out in Target stores in the U.S.
Like Natureworks, DuPont has been focusing heavily on sustainability as a corporate-wide effort and these efforts have led to the creation of its Sorona polymer, which like Ingeo, is made from a monomer created through a fermentation process. The environmental benefits of the material are three-fold, said Dawson Winch, global product manager of DuPont Sorona. It is made with 37% renewable material, by weight, its production requires 40% less energy than competing polymers and it releases 50% less greenhouse gas emissions. “This achieved without sacrificing performance,” Ms. Winch added.
Initially targeting fiber applications such as apparel markets and carpeting applications, Sorona is also establishing a role for itself in the nonwovens industry. In April, the polymer received an IDEA07 Achievement Award for raw material technology, recognizing it as one of the most innovative new products to be launched since the last IDEA show in 2004.
Using a different approach to going green is Foss Manufacturing with its new Ecospun polyester fiber, made from recycled clear white plastic bottles and designed for most applications that typically use polyester fibers. “Coca Cola alone accounts for the disposal of 51 million bottles per year in the landfills,” explained David Rowell, vice president of sales and marketing for Foss Manufacturing. “These don’t degrade and stretched end to end, they would go around the earth five times. Not only are these bottles filling up landfills, they are made from enough oil to power the city of Atlanta for one year.”
According to Mr. Rowell, Foss purchased this technology from Wellman International when it shut down its South Carolina plant and in effect its recycled polyester capabilities last year. So far the biggest challenge in expanding the use of Ecospun has not been in manufacturing or in finding customers but in sourcing the clean, polyester flake through recycled bottles.
“When it’s clean, we can make some beautiful fiber from it. It’s a very high quality resin, high intrinsic viscosity. Plenty of customers want products using this fiber.”
Environmental consciousness combined with price increases and shortages in competing materials have created a strong market opportunity for cotton in the nonwovens industry during the past two years, particularly in the wipes market where the addition of cotton can boost absorbency and strength.
Costco was the first major retailer to launch a baby wipe containing 15% cotton content, enabling it to bear a cotton enhancement seal on its label. Created by NicePak through a collaboration with Polymer Group, Inc., this baby wipe exceeded market expectations and has since been followed by similar private label brands for sale at Walgreens, CVS, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart.
According to Jan O’Regan, supply chain manager for Cotton Incorporated, the inclusion of cotton in baby wipes has given these retailers a means to differentiate their products from the national brands. This interest has led nearly every major spunlace producer to modify their production lines to handle cotton. “Anyone who is a player in the spunlace business now has the ability to run cotton,” she said. “This interest is really being driven by raw material prices, growth in wipes and the ability of the suppliers to run cotton. We needed the technology as a component in market growth. The consumer appeal of cotton has always been a given.”
All of this has been spurred along by the rapidly rising price of competing raw materials such as viscose for wipes. “We have tried to educate people on the benefits of cotton at any price but as viscose pricing has gone up, companies that may have been on the fence about cotton are now giving it closer consideration. Now that the disparity is less, it’s a no brainer,” said George Hargrove, vice president of marketing for Barnhardt Manufacturing. “It’s certainly a better fiber for many applications for wipes.”
While cotton has been enjoying a place in the private label baby wipes market, viscose continues to be a dominant fiber in most spunlace applications, despite a global supply shortage that has driven up prices. Lenzing is the global supply leader with its viscose fibers and executives still consider wipes a strong growth market. In fact, Lenzing’s new plant in Nanjing, China, which began operation in April, has allotted 50% of its 60,000 tons to the nonwovens industry, according to director of sales and marketing for Lenzing, Heinrich Jakob. “New capacity coming onstream will restore balance and we foresee no long term problems in meeting the requirements for cellulosic fibers from continued growth in wipes.”
Properties of Lenzing Viscose and Tencel including their inherent absorbency make them an ideal raw material for any absorbent product. While Mr. Jakob does admit that cotton provides the same benefit, it does not offer the same advantages in terms of purity and processability on high performance nonwovens lines. “It also needs to be stated that in many cases it is not the target to compete with other fibers but more to find the right combination of different fiber characteristics for an optimum solution to a particular end use requirement,” Mr. Jakob added, referring to the fact that the cotton containing baby wipes currently on the market still contain viscose, which works in tandem with cotton to create an effective product.”
Another viscose producer, Kelheim Fibers, has been investing in capacity upgrades to offer relief from the shortage. In the past two years, a €40 million investment has yielded a 10% capacity increase and the company plans to add another 10% within the next 18 months, according to CEO Robert Gregan
“The real drivers are the wipes and spunlace markets,” he said. “We aren’t a big player there but we want to offer solutions to a specific portion of the industry.”
Kelheim is hoping to achieve this through its Viloft fiber, which can create a fully dispersible nonwoven wipe to meet needs for flushability in the wipes market. “This is something that can’t be achieved through traditional viscose or polyester,” he said. “It is not as tough as the other material but it is able to disperse.”
Despite its dependence on petroleum—and the fact that its price has risen significantly in the past several years—polypropylene continues to dominate hygiene markets as well as a number of other key nonwovens areas. Its popularity can be attributed to its low density, high level of chemical inertness, lack of bacteria growth, hydrophobic nature, process versatility and performance-to-cost ratio.
“The combination of these properties, along with the advancements in extrusion and spinning machinery, have allowed sophisticated product designs such as spunbond/meltblown/spunbond composites), which make PP the resin of choice for nonwoven applications,” said Dick Stolwijk, vice president of Basell’s Metocene business unit.
Simply put, in many cases there is no suitable replacement for polypropylene on a broad scale in the hygiene market. Therefore, the rising price of this material has been to some extent been absorbed throughout the supply chain, but suppliers of these fibers and resins have been eager to work with their customers to make the brunt of this as bearable as possible.
“The sharp increases over the last two years in oil and polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester resin prices have been unprecedented and have required us to work closely with our customers,” said Stephen Wood, CEO of Fibervisions. “We have aggressively controlled our costs to moderate the impact of raw material increases and we have worked with customers to use new products that offer efficiency and/or performance improvements. We do expect polypropylene prices to moderate when new resin capacity comes onstream and this should allow polypropylene to return to its historical cost advantage over other raw materials.”
For example, to improve costs and efficiency, FiberVisions has introduced HY-Shrink fibers that can create bulky or lofty nonwovens using existing equipment, creating new opportunities for thermal bond fabrics. Other new products from FiberVisions include a line of HY-Wettable fibers that offer better wet tensile strength, more bulk, less dust along with the traditional benefits of polypropylene fibers such as the capability of being thermally embossed. And, Fibervisions’ CoolVisions products are the first disperse dyeable polypropylene fibers available to the market. They have the traditional benefits of polypropylene with better chemical and stain resistance compared to other fibers. These fibers are also much lighter than many competing materials and provide better coverage with less garment weight and fiber content.
Polypropylene supplier Basell has also responded to higher feedstock costs with new products. Its Metocene nonwoven product line allows finer fibers and fabrics with an reduced basis weight without compromising the fabric properties. “Light or ultra light fabric basis weight without compromising fabric properties is one way to offset the increase in resin costs,” Mr. Stolwijk said. “Consistent products (less waste) and higher machine output (both of which are attainable with Metocene resins) are additional ways to keep costs under control.”
That’s not to say, of course, that cost reduction is the only improvement polypropylene suppliers are offering their customers. There is also high interest in improved barrier properties and higher productivity. It is likely, however, that these kinds of properties can only be achieved by a combination of machine, resin and fabric construction, Basell’s Mr. Stolwijk said.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is meeting demands for better with its Vistamaxx speciality elastomers offer products for both spunbond and meltblown that provide stretch and recovery. This gives nonwovens producers the ability to bring cost effective elasticity to their customers. Exxon’s latest product offerings, Vistamaxx and ExxonMobil Polypropylene SFT315, respond to cusmer’s needs for improved comfort, giving products more elasticity, softness and drape.