Geotextiles: Highs and Lows Shape the Market

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | August 13, 2008

new applications, products emerge despite economic challenges

The global geotextiles and geo­synthetics market on the nonwoven roll good level continue to grow as manufacturers continue to depend on a wide range of technologies to meet the needs of civil engineering and other application areas. However, increased polypropylene and other raw material costs as well as escalated energy prices, combined with a failure to pass along these costs have made this market challenging.

    Polypropylene resin costs have climbed 20% or more since the beginning of the year, on top of a series of increases felt during the past several years before that. This has required suppliers to the global geotextiles market—like many companies—to increase prices. For example, last month Col­bond Nonwovens, a key supplier of erosion control, soil reinforcement and drainage materials an­nounced it would increase prices 6-9% across all of its products, joining other key nonwovens manufacturers such as Polymer Group, Inc. and Johns Manville, who also supply the global geotextiles market.

    Also hurting conditions within geotextiles are economic problems, stemming largely from the U.S., where construction and other infrastructure projects have slowed, leading to less investment in geotextile applications such as drainage control, soil abatement and run-off and erosion control.

    According to some manufacturers, a noticeable effect of pricing pressures and other negative economic factors on geotextiles makers is a trend toward commodity products. Whether this is achieved through lighter-weight applications or changing technology mixes depends on the applications, but makers of nonwovens have striven hard to meet the needs of this market. Colbond, for instance, has adjusted its product range to provide its partners with competitive solutions. “Colbond is focused on efficiency improvements to compensate for risen costs, but we have now reached a limit and therefore are in the process of enforcing price increases,” said spokesperson Hannah Huebner.

    However, certain areas of the geotextiles market have been able to withstand economic pressures and the segment has benefited from growth in developing areas such as preparation work for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, roadway construction throughout China and Asia and general infrastructure improvements in Eastern Europe and Soviet Block countries. Additionally, eco-consciousness throughout the world has created the need for membranes and other geosynthetics that not only keep nature intact but do not leave an imprint on the earth.

Off To Asia

The amount of infrastructural im­provements within Asia, particularly in China and India, has created tremendous opportunities for geosynthetics suppliers in these areas. The market is becoming so important, in fact, that training courses dealing specifically with nonwovens and geotextiles, were held with great success in India earlier this year. And,  course organizer INDA, North America’s nonwovens trade association—not to mention other industry stakeholders—plan to hold additional courses as well as conferences and other events there in the near term.

    As these countries strive to prepare themselves for the 21st century, they have been witness to a number of infrastructure improvement products that require the use of nonwovens geotextiles. And, while many markets for nonwovens—like disposable consumer goods, have been slow to grow in Asia as consumers do not generally have the disposable income needed for such products—the geotextiles industry is in full swing in India. One company offering a number of products for geotextile applications is KT Inter­national. Based in Mumbai, India, KT International makes spunbond poly­propylene nonwovens that are made into ground covers for parking mats, weed mats and frost covers as well as needlepunch nonwovens to line containers that house fragile plants.

    “Parking mats are an ideal preventative measure against garage mis­haps,”  according to the company. “They are engineered and manufacturerd to high standards of functionality and durability. These mats catch every drop of mud, slush and grime that falls from the vehicle.”

    Made from a spunbond/meltblown sandwich constructions, the weed mats contain a higher carbon black content to provide superior light blocking capabilities to protect against the toughest weeds. Likewise, frost covers can protect plants against frost damage.

Save Our Soil

Erosion issues are an important part of the geotextiles market. Propex Inc., a maker of needlepunched nonwovens has responded to growth in this segment with the R.A.C.E. (Roadway and Civil Engineering) program, which was created to help design effective geotextiles in civil engineering projects.

    Among Propex’s products are Lodloc erosion control blankets for the short-term challenge of establishing vegetation in low to moderate erosion ap­plications. Unlike loose fiber mulches, a Landlok erosion control blanket gives a project dimensional stability, locking seed and soil in place and protecting seedlings to promote faster vegetation growth and a stronger root system. ECBs are easy to install and are designed to degrade over specific periods of time depending on application requirements and project location. These geosynthetic solutions are comprised of either straw and/or coconut fibers or polypropylene yarns and fibers. Landlok ECBs are reinforced on one or both sides by a polypropylene netting.

    Additionally, Geotex nonwoven geotextiles are made from the highest quality polypropylene fibers and are nee­dlepunched to form a dimensionally stable fiber network. Propex’s line of Geotex nonwoven products include subsurface drainage fabrics, separation fabrics, stabilization fabrics and fabrics for erosion control and cushioning. Whether used in roadways, railroads or landfills, these nonwoven geosynthetic solutions can add years to the life of a project.

    Another company looking to secure its place in the North American market is  Gainesville, GA-based manufacturer Lumite Inc., a 50% subsidiary of The Thrace Plastics Group of Greece. In July, the company said it had agreed to acquire the Yonah plant from Propex, who has been experiencing some financial difficulties in recent months.

    The 226,200-square-foot Yonah facility, located on 42 acres in Alto, GA, manufactures specialty man-made fabrics such as geotextiles, monofilament filtration fabrics, protective nets and recreational fabrics. The acquisition will enable Lumite to grow and strengthen its geotextile products distribution capabilities in order to better serve the expanding global geosynthetics market as well as provide U.S.-made monofilament woven fabrics, improved cost efficiency, shortened lead times and a range of value choices.

    “The acquisition of the Yonah plant directly supports our objectives to increase production capacity and to further expand the company’s U.S. market,” said Ron Rooks, president, Lumite. “The purchase is in perfect accordance with Lumite’s and Thrace Plastics’ mutually ambitious pursuit of an evolving geosynthetics industry. This is an excellent example of how we plan to meet the evolving global market demand with a unified, aggressive approach.”

    Earlier this year, Thrace-Linq purchased a new needling line from NSC nonwoven to help it expand in the U.S. market. The NSC line, capable of making 7000 tons of material per year, features innovations such as the Excelle card, ProDYn and Out!sys, allows Thrace-Linq to move quickly from pro­duct to product. The technologies allow the production of light and medium nonwoven technical fabrics at outstanding high production speeds,  with excellent tensile strength properties where conventional technologies would compromise fabric evenness and productivity.

    At the time of the purchase, executives said the new line would allows the group to pursue its ambitious commitment to the geosynthetics industry. The Thrace  Group stretches its
infrastructure across three continents, and Thrace-Linq has earned a reputation for innovative geotextiles that stand the test of time.

     Costas Halioris, managing director, said, “To meet the growing geosynthetics global market demand, we intend to expand and strengthen distribution and sales, while continuing to focus on new product development efforts.”

     Created in May 2007 when Thrace purchased the assets of the Linq Industrial Fabrics’ Geo and Agro division, Thrace-Linq’s excellence and in­no­vation sets it apart in the geosynthetics industry, according to executives. “This initial purchase was an important milestone,” said Davis Taylor, the company’s  vice president for operations, “and we expect to secure solid growth in our nonwoven technical fabric business. We will  remain competitive in the marketplace while providing real employment opportunities to South Carolina and unsurpassed  products to the geosynthetics industry worldwide.”

     Meanwhile, another key player Ferguson Waterworks’ Geotex nonwovens are made from continuous filament polypropylene. These needle­punched nonwovens target subsurface drainage applications where light- to medium-weight nonwoven Geotextiles prove to be excellent filters, allowing subsurface water to pass into the drainage core while preventing adjacent soil from clogging the system. When properly selected, these geotextiles are effective in most all soils. Another application is roadway separation/railroad stabilization by deploy­ing a Geotex nonwoven geotextile directly on a soft, saturated subgrade and intermixing.

    Also focusing on geotextiles is Colbond from its sites in the Nether­lands and North Carolina. A leader in erosion control and drainage, Colbond’s Enkamat monofilament mats prevent erosion water and wind on slopes and gives foothold to vegetation and the Enkadrain keeps construction dry or drains off water and gas at landfills. Also from Colbond is Enkagrid geogrids for soil reinforcement and stabilization, which are used in road construction to extend service life and reduce need for thick sub-structures.

    With distributors in more than 60 countries, Colbond is growing its business globally with particularly strong growth in Eastern Europe, where it has a sister company in Hungary, North America, through a partnership with Profile Products for its turf reinforcement business, and Italy, which has become an important market for Colbond.

A Smaller Footprint

On the environmental front, one company leading the crusade in geotextiles is DS Technical Nonwovens, which supplies commodity geotextiles as well as customized geotextile applications. Last year, the company an­nounced it was experimenting with the use of biopolymers such as PLA in technical geotextile end uses. In June 2007, the company announced its new Hortaflex nonwovens, which are eco-fleece nee­dle­punched nonwovens based on Natureworks’ Ingeo fiber. Typi­cal target applications for Hortaflex include ground cover, landscaping, erosion and weed control.  The Ingeo fiber used in making Hortaflex fleece is the first manmade fiber based on 100% annually renewable resources, not oil.

    The Hortaflex product is offered in weights ranging from 120 gpsm to a more rugged 1.5 kpsm fabric for landscaping, erosion protection and stabilization as well as weed control barriers and pre-seeded grow mats. DS Technical Nonwoven can also customize this fabric with modifications such as weight, tenacity and elongation requirements and processes such as needlepunched, calendered or lamination. Specialty functional additives can also be applied.

    Also working hard to stay green by offering eco-friendly alternatives in agricultural applications is Korean spunbond specialist Toray Saehan (TSI). Saying that spunbond nonwovens’ end uses in agricultural applications are becoming diversified as farming technology expands and evolves globally, H.B. Lee said that his company’s material helps farmers increase crop yields and boost productivity. Applications include curtains, thermal covers, rice seedbed and red pepper mulching, tunnel mulching and alpine vegetable mulching.

    While green and other socio-economic benefits will continue to shape the global geotextile market, the key factor driving development going forward will be costs. Geotextile manufacturers are being squeezed on both sides—by the raw material suppliers driving up prices and by their customers who refuse to pay more for their products in a challenged economy. This will particularly ring true in the transportation segment where agencies are being forced to more closely scrutinize their budgets and build projects right the first time.

    And this trend is expected to extend into all types of agencies as budgets—in both the public and private sector—are forced to scale back costs and do more with less.  

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