A Kinder, Gentler Nonwoven

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | February 11, 2009

alternative raw materials prove that disposable doesn't have to mean irresponsible when it comes to the Earth.

One year ago, Clorox bet on consumers’ need for natural cleaning products when it launched its GreenWorks line of cleaners. That gamble has paid off. First year sales of the eight-SKU line, which includes an all-purpose spray, a toilet bowl cleaner, dishwashing soap and a glass cleaner, reportedly reached $100 million and now Clorox is celebrating the one-year anniversary of GreenWorks by introducing a biodegradable cleaning wipe.

    As the largest manufacturer of all-purpose cleaning wipes with a near 50% marketshare, Clorox knows how to sell wipes and the development of a wipe that meets the GreenWorks goal of being easy on the environment without sacrificing cleaning performance demonstrates how disposables can combine convenience and ecofriendliness in one product.

     “People still don’t get it that reusables are not necessarily better for the environment than disposables,” said Susan Stansbury, of converters group Converting Influence. “By the time you figure in solvent run-off, the impact of laundering and other factors, sometimes reusables can be harsher.”

    Like Clorox, converters and marketers of wipes and other nonwovens products are incorporating more ecofriendliness into their goods hoping to take some of the stigma off of disposability in today’s greener times. From disposable diapers sold by niche players like Nature Baby and Seventh Generation to wipes made from renewable resources from industry giants like Clorox or greenminded household cleaner company Method or Italian hygiene producer WIP srl, products are emerging that offer the convenience of disposability without the stigma of draining nonrenewable resources or adding to already overflowing landfills.

    “Moving into new, innovative materials always comes with challenges. We wanted to improve the eco profile of our wipes as well as some other characteristics in the wipe substrate,” said Rachel Goldberg, spokesperson for Method, a green-minded maker of household cleaning products including a cleaning wipe made from renewable bamboo fibers.    

    Among Method’s green cleaning line is a floor mop based on polylactic acid and a bamboo all-purpose cleaning wipe.

A Green Package

Today’s producers and converters are developing green from A to Z products wherein environmental impact is considered in everything from the substrate to the process to the packaging to the process by which the wipe is made. The result are nonwoven products that are based on more sustainable raw materials, able to biodegrade or boast an absence of Earth-damaging chemicals.

    Creating these products without sacrificing efficacy is the key challenge. “Consumers are looking for products that are effective and complete the cleaning task with the fewest amounts of wipes used. They want functionality with the benefits of a renewable raw material and full biodegradability. They want solutions to their cleaning tasks that also make sense to our environment,” said Nick Hrinko, of cellulosic fiber supplier Lenzing.

    Nonwovens made from Lenzing’s viscose and Tencel fibers have been certified and registered by Din Certco as compostable materials. Nonwovens made from 100% Lenzing fibers are made from cellulose which is naturally absorbent, wood is renewable, forests are managed in line with certified forestry regulations and trees are grown on non-arable land without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.

    Tencel is made from a completely nonchemical process, producing a stronger more durable product that is kinder and gentler on the environment.

    The development of environmentally friendly nonwovens can largely be attributed to the innovation on the raw material front as fibers like Lenzing’s Tencel, Natureworks’ Ingeo polylactic acid or even something as well known as cotton or bamboo increase their prominence in nonwovens. This shift to new materials has been driven as strongly by rising petro prices as it has by a need for green nonwovens.

    “The high oil prices really accelerated the change from petro-based fibers to other options,” Mr. Hrinko explained.

    Like Tencel, cotton has been benefiting from its position as a natural fiber, according to supply chain manager Janet O’Regan. “As technology is lessening cotton’s environmental impact, its attractiveness has only grown.” Also benefiting the fiber are advances in hydroentanglement technology and many nonwovens makers’ investment in machinery that can process cotton.    

    “Cotton is strong as a consumer product,” Cotton Incorporated’s Janet Reed said. “People have a lot of good associations with cotton.”

    Four years ago, cotton debuted in the private label baby wipes market when Costco began marketing a 15% cotton baby wipe through its Kirkland brand name. Since then, several other wipes marketers have introduced cotton-containing wipes.

    Around the time of this introduction, production processes were a barrier to entry to cotton in the nonwovens industry, but since then nearly every maker of spunlaced nonwovens has the necessary filtration systems to include cotton in their processes. In fact, nonwovens producers across the board are looking to alternative raw materials to make their products greener.

    In another twist on spunlaced with alternative raw materials, last year Strateline Industries set up shop in an old PGI plant in Arkansas with the intent of creating spunlaced nonwovens for wipes—through a collaboration with Rockline Industries—from recycled scrap cotton material. The effort is using cotton discarded through the manufacture of T-shirts, which would normally be thrown out.

    Two years ago, Suominen was one of the world’s first nonwovens producer to launch a specific brand dedicated to sustainable nonwovens concepts. Using PLA and other sustainable raw materials, Biolace is a sustainable spunlaced nonwovens. Reporting growth in the double-digit range, Biolace has largely been sought after for wipes in all categories, said sales director of Suominen Nonwovens, Tommi Saarela. “We have even supplied Biolace for car wipes,” he said. “This demand is driven by environmental concerns, which are becoming more and more important emphasizing the ongoing need for sustainability and recycling opportunities.”

Focus On Fibers

As a major supplier of spunlaced nonwovens, Ahlstrom has had the ability to run cotton for several years and has already partnered with a number of companies to make cotton-containing wipes. In fact, natural fibers are a large component of Ahlstrom’s commitment to the environment whose goal it is to increase the content of natural fibers across all of its nonwovens lines.
    More recently, the diversified roll goods producer is expanding its natural fibers efforts beyond spunlace and wipes. Its latest spunbond line in Chirnside, Scot­land has the ability to process Ingeo polylactic acid fibers, allowing it to make compostable, biodegradable nonwovens for infusion applications. “The reduction in environmental impact was the criteria when investing in our new technology for infusion markets and an independent cradle to gate life cycle analysis has confirmed this,” said Marco Martinez. “The new grades are designed for conversion on ultrasonic machines, producing a variety of shaped tea bags designed for small and large leaf teas and infusions.”

    Additional green products from Ahlstrom include its EasyLife portfolio of wall covering nonwovens, which contain up to 60% recycled fibers as well as a new range of technical nonwovens for use as embroidery backings that meet the world’s most stringent standards in terms of formaldehyde content.    

    Natureworks PLA is on track to help more nonwovens producers—as it did with Ahlstrom—expand its green profile into many technology platforms. According to Robert Green, fiber and nonwovens, Ingeo polylactic acid fiber can work well with all major nonwovens producers and in the past several years, the company has struck partnerships with nonwovens producers around the world. “We have found Ingeo to work well with all major nonwovens processes,” he said. “Conventional fiber-based operations such as needlepunch, spunlace and thermal bond have been very straight forward to commercialize. Spunbond processes have required a bit more effort but leading companies have been successful and are now offering commercial products. We are also working to develop meltblown applications and see significant opportunity in this area.”

    “There is an increased demand for products with greener features, in practically all the markets where we operate,” Mr. Martinez said. “In all of the areas we see a growing interest for more ecofriendly products coming from consumers, end users and converters. While all the players in the value chain are becoming more environmentally conscious, there is also an increasing number of specific regulations, which is pushing this process.” v

Related Application:

Related Technology:

Related Other: