FR Legislation Creates Opportunities for Nonwovens

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | April 2, 2008

pending standards for upholstered furniture, top of bed materials could mean more growth for FR nonwovens

Three years ago when the consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) passed regulations requiring all mattresses sold in the U.S. meet flammability standards, the nonwovens industry rose to the challenge. In preparation for the legislation—known as CFP Part 1633—nonwovens producers, both experienced in flammability resistance and new to this technology—worked overtime to develop substrate material able to meet the standards, which became effective in July 2007. Fast forward a year and the bedding market has fully transitioned to FR materials—helped largely by nonwovens, which are favored for their cost efficiency, flexibility and ability to run at high line speeds—and some are even calling the market that was once praised for its ability to offer value adds, commoditized.

    However, there are now new opportunities on the horizon for those nonwovens manufacturers and suppliers of FR materials to the nonwovens industry that have successfully met the standards enacted last July. The CPSC seems to be finally moving forward with a similar flammability measure, this time encompassing the upholstered furniture market. Like the mattress ruling, which was under consideration for more than a decade, the upholstered furniture standards have faced a number of hurdles over the years, but just last month the CPSC revealed its most recent draft standard and industry insiders who monitor this activity feel a finalized ruling could be in place by next year.

Why Nonwovens?

According to executives, nonwovens containing fibers with inherent fire retardant characteristics, such as Kuitu’s (formerly Sateri) Visil fiber, or with other fibers treated with fire retardant materials, pose benefits for mattress manufacturers seeking compliance with the regulation including flexibility and cost effectiveness. Therefore, many nonwovens manufacturers—seeking a new market with value added possibilities—created flame retardant materials for the market, but as time has passed this playing field has narrowed as capacity has been met.

    “There are really just a handful of significant vendors out there today,” said Tom Taylor, manager of Western Nonwovens, Inc.’s bedding business, who recently returned from the biennial Sleep Product Show sponsored by International Sleep Products Asso­ciation. “Two years ago, it seemed ev­ery­one was offering possibilities to bar­rier materials but the market has ma­tured, and there are fewer vendors out there.”

    Still, the market continues to be a strong one for nonwovens makers who offer the right combination of economics, technology and geographical availability. Price increases in many bedding components such as steel, foam and polyurethane have hit mattress makers hard because they have trouble passing along these costs to retailers. To help them, Western Nonwovens has worked with the CPSC to modify its FR offerings to improve price and performance.

    “The law as it’s written has a highly defined process and the CPSC did provide objectionable criteria for making changes, so with its help we defined the process whereby we could make these changes with minimal testing,” Mr. Taylor explained. “We wanted to improve the overall economics of the bed.”

    With much of the improvements in flame retardant nonwovens for bedding centering on costs, nonwovens makers in this segment could soon have two more key segments prime for growth. Currently the CPSC is examining flammability standards that would apply to all upholstered furniture sold in the U.S. while the state of California is examining similar rulings for top of the bed applications such as sheets, blankets and comforters. Unlike the mattress legislation, which charges the mattress and bedding manufacturer with the task of proving their goods compliant, the newer regulations would put this onus on the component supplier, i.e. the nonwovens maker.

    While this task might seem like an added headache for nonwovens producers looking to do business in these areas, seasoned veterans disagree, stating that already they must prove to their customers that the substrates can meet standards. This change just shifts the focus on their efforts.

    For upholstered furniture to be classified as Type I, CPSC staff is proposing that “cover fabrics or other covering materials” be able to pass a laboratory test demonstrating that they are “smolder resistant.” In this test, seating area mockups made with the cover material over a standard polyurethane foam filing (SPUF) would have to self-extinguish within 45 minutes, with no obvious signs of ignition, after a cigarette has been lodged in the crevice between the seating area and the back of the mockup. In addition, the cover fabric must demonstrate that it only allows “minimal heat” to transfer between the outer fabric and the SPUF underneath. To do this, the test requires that no more than 10% of the SPUF substrate be lost during the course of the 45 minute test.

    According to WNI’s Mr. Taylor the standards issued for upholstery are actually easier to meet than those already in place for mattresses so tailoring products to meet these standards would not be hugely problematic. However, with furniture production on the decline in the U.S., it would not be a huge market for U.S.-based suppliers. Furniture made in Asia would use FR interlinings made locally be­cause high loft nonwovens are expensive to ship.

    While some predict these measures could pass into law within the next month, they have been tied up by various hurdles—including dissent of the furniture industry and concerns over the safety of FR chemicals—for years and of course additional delays could surface. In early March, CPSC issued its latest draft standard and the industry has until mid-May to voice its comments.

    As they stand now, the standards would give furniture manufacturers two choices: they can either treat their fabrics with flame retardant materials and prove that the fabrics meet test protocols to ensure material is not particularly flammable or they can use interlinings with flame retardant capabilities, which have already proved compliant.

    According to Peter Mayberry, INDA’s director of government affairs, nonwovens’ ability to provide off-the-shelf technology could be a real win for the industry. However, furniture manufacturers have long been concerned with what such a ruling would mean for them.

    “Historically, furniture companies have resisted on the grounds of how expensive it would be for them to use flame resistant interlinings,” he said. “They say it would be cheaper to use batting or ticking.”

    According to CPSC staff estimates, the adoption of these standards would  cost the upholstered furniture industry $32-$57 million per year but would result in benefits of $419-$424 million per year.

    In addition to meeting the FR part of the standards, upholstered furniture would be required to carry a permanent label containing a statement certifying compliance, identifying the manufacturer and importer, stating the location and date of manufacture and listing the model and lot number of the furniture item.

Is It Safe?

One of the factors that delayed the bedding regulation and is still holding up the upholstery standard is concern over the safety of FR treatment chemicals. There had been little scientific data about the impact that living in a house with FR-treated fabrics has on human health, creating concern that was so great that Congress intervened by requiring that a study be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences.

    And, while some FR chemicals—like those made with halogen—can prose some threat, there are plenty of safe options out there.”

    “We have been in the flame retardant business for a long time and there have been many regulations out there for a long time,” said Danny Steiner, global manager for flame retardants at Huntsmann Chemicals. “I would rather say we have watched it very closely for a long time to develop products appropriate for home use.”

    In fact, it is concerns like these that have kept Huntsman away from certain chemistries during its long life in the FR business. “We focus on halogen-free chemistries and we have brought some real innovation to various industries,” Mr. Steiner added. “Some halogen-based products are used excessively in certain areas. With halogen there is always a risk to create dioxins for something like this. They have always been seen as the bad boys.”

    Visil fibers from Kuitu have seen some great success in the bedding market thanks to their safe and inherent FR technology. Visil, a wood and silica-based FR fiber developed in Finland, offers a combination of FR performance and comfort at a reasonable price, according to the company. Among its advantages are relatively low costs and that fact it doesn’t emit toxic gases when burned.

    Also making inroads into the bedding mattress segment, from a smaller scale is Basofil fibers, although this high performance fiber has had some challenges meeting the price requirements of the market, according to executives. As this market grows, creating demand for additional materials, executives expect to sell this fiber, in blends, to certain segments.

    Meanwhile, Basofil is largely focused on areas beyond mattress such as high temperature filtration and firefighter suits which require greater levels of protection.

    “We are doing quite a bit of work with stitchbonded,” said Alan Hander­man, vice president of research and development for Basofil. “We are taking inexpensive materials such as cotton or rayon and stitchbonding them with a flame resistant yarn to product filler cloth-type materials. We have some prototype products that are being evaluated to show how to provide greater strength at lower cots. You can essentially use non-FR fibers and incorporate FR into the stitching and still get results.”

    Beyond bedding, nonwovens continue to replace conventional textiles, making FR a prime growth area for the industry. “There are some areas where both systems are competing but obviously there are a lot of benefits to the nonwovens side, especially if you go to large quantities,” said Pat Erberlein, market development for Huntsman Chemicals.                   

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