How Green Can Nonwovens Be?

By Mark Snider, Principal: Smith, Johnson & Associates | May 11, 2009

The “Green Movement” has gained popularity in both consumer and business sectors and is here to stay. Benefits to the environment and government incentives add to the concept  of greener and more efficient lifestyles and business systems. An initial tendency when first considering green initiatives is to get caught up in a “purists” perspective, concentrating on 100% green applications. The fact is, in the initial stages of changing a  lifestyle, the lifestyle itself is the most important change, not the level of benefit. Additional benefits will come as greener lifestyles are realized. The point here is to get started and see where it takes you. One thing is for certain—greener lifestyles and business  practices will benefit the environment in positive ways no matter what level is employed.

    Here are a few examples that can really make a difference: In 2005, per Wal-Mart and Ingeo statistics, Wal-Mart’s conversion of 114 million PET containers in its grocery retail area alone saved 30,150 kwh  of energy or an equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline (see INDA WOW 2008 papers). Imagine that—one simple change added millions of dollars to the bottom line and also provided a benefit to the environment. This does not even take into account the marketing benefits derived from taking steps toward green. If every nonwoven producing company dedicated just 10% to more efficient business practices such as recycling or using some form of renewable power source, we would reduce millions of tons of greenhouse gases and save considerable  dollars on energy.

    Care should be taken to honestly approach green practices; it is easy to get caught up in assumptions that aren’t necessarily green or beneficial. For example, in most cases there are significant amounts of fossil energy required to grow agricultural products and this energy is often overlooked when calculating environmental im­pact. If the U.S. sends all of its manufacturing off shore, the products are still consumed. In most cases, products are  manufactured offshore without employing even the most basic standards for  environmental impact. Simply put, just because the products are not made here in this country does not mean that we are doing something good for the environment. We must approach this issue by scrutinizing our actions from a global perspective. Here in the U.S., we employ forestry practices that need to be examined. For example, we claim environmental responsibility by pretending that cutting down native hardwood forests and re-planting them with pine is “a good thing.” However, it takes a hardwood forest 10-plus times to develop and grow compared to a pine forest and the ecosystem for these two forest systems is completely different and supports completely different animal systems, not to mention the aesthetic differences. Is this practice better than clear cutting? Maybe. The fact is, this forest can be re-cut 10-plus times sooner than a hardwood forest could. “Trees grow jobs” is the slogan for “we are re-planting to grow jobs not to benefit the environment.” Is this practice better than not re-planting with pine at all? Maybe. Maybe we should consider different rules that modify our way of thinking and acting.

     Considerable work is required to honestly gauge the benefit or harm from a life-cycle analysis perspective and this perspective requires the utmost in diligence and thorough research. We must start somewhere. How about changing our way of thinking?

    Through education, our lifestyles will change and positive actions will come next. Does  our small contribution matter? Absolutely. Here are a few examples:

The Green Movement

81 billion bottles and cans have been littered, landfilled or incinerated in the U.S. this year. 70 million PET water bottles are being consumed in the U.S. each day. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that making bottles to meet the U.S. demand for bottled water requires more than 15 million barrels of oil annually—enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. Only about one in six plastic water bottles sold in the U.S. in 2004 was recycled, leading to a national recycling rate of about 17%. If the U.S. consumer recycled only 10% more of these bottles, we would save 1.5 million barrels of crude oil.

    According to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), 4637 million pounds (2103 million kg) of PET beverage, food and non-food bottles were sold in 2004. Of the 803 million pounds (364 million kg) that were converted to clean flake, 298 million pounds (135 million kg) were exported, primarily to Asia. 505 million pounds (229 million kg) were used domestically to make new products such as polyester jackets, carpet, film, strapping and new PET bottles.

    Only a small percentage of PET bottles sold are used to make new plastic bottles—approximately 4%. The paucity of closed-loop recycling means that new water bottles must be manufactured almost entirely from virgin petroleum resin, consuming vast amounts of energy and resources. Increasing the quantity of bottles containing recycled content would greatly reduce energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution (see Graph 1).

     Also, through co-generation, this plastic could be used to produce re­newable power. If only 10% of us in the U.S. drove or flew 5% less each year, we would reduce our carbon footprint by 132 million tons of carbon per year and our dependency on foreign oil (and we would reduce the price for gasoline in the process).

     If only 50% of the businesses in the U.S. recycled 10% of the cardboard used for packaging their products, we would save millions of trees annually and the oil re­quired to harvest the trees. Some businesses have added millions to their bottom line.

    Here’s a challenge: Go to: http://­www.his­tory.com/­states.do?action­=state&state=Air%20and%20Water%­20Pollution&parentId=earth and take a three-minute tour of “your carbon footprint” and check out your score. I was amazed  at how high mine was compared to the national average. I will change my behavior as a result. Knowing your real carbon footprint and realizing it is the first step to changing behavior.
Important Questions & Answers

Q: Do I want to be involved in the green movement?

A: It is more than just a fad and will benefit the globe for centuries to come.

Q: What should be my motivation?

A: To be globally responsible and make a positive contribution.

Q: Does my contribution even matter?

A: Look at your personal carbon footprint (calculate it above) then answer  this question.

Q: What can I do to start?

A: Start by making small changes in your thinking and your habits.


 The Green Philosophy is a lifestyle and way to contribute while you are here on earth. Consider the environment in every aspect of your business and personal lives. You don’t need to be a “Purist” to contribute in a significant way. Develop public awareness through your personal actions, your communications and your support for green initiatives. Take responsibility for your personal impact on the environment. We must educate ourselves and take responsibility for the positive and negative affects of past and present actions.

     The U.S. has pioneered some ecological practices and government regulations to change our way of thinking and acting. However, we remain on the very top of the usage-chain. In addition, we are not honest with ourselves when it comes to the stress that we put on the globe by simply being the most wasteful consumers on the planet. We can impose legislation and pen­alties. However, the most powerful tool is to change public behavior and also to offer incentives and credits supporting green initiatives.

     One example is the fact that almost every local power company is required by the federal government to pay for excess power generated from renewable resources (paid for at premium power rates). This can be quite an incentive as wind turbines can generate considerable excess power under certain low-use conditions.

     We have made significant improvement related to rules and regulations. For example, we have cleaned many of our rivers and streams and we have even improved air quality in many of our larger cities. The air quality in the U.S. has never been worse than in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (similar to the current air quality problems in China, mainly because they are now the manufacturing center of the world). Have we improved our environmental impact on the globe by shifting our carbon footprint to China? No, because their regulations are currently not as strict as ours are now and we continue to be the greatest consumers on the face of the planet.

     Imagine the positive impact on our industry if certain specific nonwoven filtration systems were specified to address particular environmental issues. Some new battery technologies already benefit from the use of nonwoven separator sheets to improve battery performance. In addition, the use of recycled PET flake is more in demand than is currently available. The excess plastic exists, we simply need to put the facilities and methods in place to reclaim it.

The Good News

The results of ignoring the environmental consequences are obvious. The good news is that these disasters can be avoided and can be repaired in many cases. Here are a few examples:

    The air quality in cities such as London, U.K., Donora, PA and other cities has improved from toxic levels only decades ago to tolerable. In Donora, PA, between October 26 and 31, 1948, 20 people were asphyxiated and more than 7000 were hospitalized or became ill as the result of severe air pollution. The Donora tragedy sparked today’s governmental clean air standards and today Donora air quality levels are safe and well within ac­ceptable health standards.

 In the mid-1960s, the Po­tomac River in Washington, DC had such serious pollution levels that if anyone accidentally fell in (at certain points in the river) they had to be taken to the hospital and “detoxified.” This is not the case now—this river offers recreational possibilities and has been cleaned up to safe standards (to the point that they are holding a 7.5 mile “Swim for the Environment” this year).  

    Public awareness has improved by way of media support and movies like “An Inconvenient Truth.” Remarkable changes in public attitude have oc­curred and as a result, we are reversing damage done in the past and at remarkable speed. More public awareness: take a look at your local grocery shelves. Green products such as method cleaners are replacing traditional products at an impressive rate.

    Increased use of more durable products, plastic recycling and renewable energy credits/incentives offer change in the right direction. Simple changes in policy and behavior will make a significant difference. It is difficult to gauge; however, using recycled polymer in the form of chop or flake will certainly reduce the carbon footprint of the product. For nonwovens uses, the resulting products are remarkably bright (when used in 100% white form) and require very little additives. There are some producers that are using 100% recycled flake successfully and for color-tinted substrates the product quality is outstanding.

    Small steps in manufacturing efficiency have proven results and add to bottom-line profitability. Are improvements possible? You be the judge.

How Do Nonwovens Compare to Other Products?

To start with, a large percentage of nonwoven products are made with fossil-based polymers, so nonwovens will never be 100% green. However, most of this plastic can be recycled. If recycling initiatives were put in place right now requiring recycling of only 10% of the nonwoven products produced in this country alone (based on 1.25 million tons per year), we would save 227 million kwh in energy per year and realize a respectable reduction in greenhouse gases.  

     Is this the solution to the problem? No, but it is a start and it is a new way of thinking. The point is: we can help by doing even a small part by thinking and acting globally. If we improved our production efficiencies by only 10% (based on approximately 2kw/kg of polymer used), we would save approximately12 million kilowatts in energy per year without even changing the product performance.

     A shift from disposable to durable: If we as consumers started re-using grocery bags or used more durable spunbond nonwoven bags instead, think of the benefits to our industry. Instead of the checkout clerk asking “paper or plastic?” a sur-charge could be applied to our grocery bill for every new grocery bag used (this has been done in other countries like Germany for years). The practice of  re-using a more durable grocery bag is something that we could do as consumers without any real effort and it could be accomplished by developing new habits.

     During the World of Wipes conference recently, NatureWorks LLC (Ingeo) polymers gave a presentation about its non-petroleum based polymer. A significant product, but what I liked most is that it started with energy as its sales tool to promote the product. Renewable energy is used wherever possible to produce this product. Indeed, the use of renewable energy to produce polymer can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Paths Forward to Green Manufacturing

Renewable energy…Here are few facts that might surprise you: If a manufacturer installed only one power-producing 100 kw wind turbine, this could produce an average of 157,991 kwh per year and could be paid off in only 12 years (this represents a $375,000 investment) and this is enough power to support one 150,000 square foot manufacturing facility without using grid power (see Graph 2 and Table 2).

    If the same manufacturing facility used 20 kv of solar power to heat its water supply, the annual energy output would be 30,842 kwh per year and this cost could be paid back in only six years (this represents only a $36,000 investment). If Solar Air Heating for a 50,000 square foot manufacturing facility (located in the Midwest U.S.) was employed, a $108,000 investment could be paid off in four years.

Which Nonwoven Products Can Be Green(er)?

Roll Goods:

    Carded Spunlace

    Thermal Bonded

    Hot Through Bonding

    Spunbond Polypropylene

    Spunbond Polyester



    Chemical Bonded

    Hot Melt Bonded

    Laminated Substrates

Final Products:

    Diapers - Baby/Adult


    Wet and Dry Wipes




    Building Products




    Hot Through Bonded
    Sanitary Pad Lines
    Diaper Lines
    Converting Lines
    Lamination lines
    Dry Wipe
    Wet Wipe

Which nonwoven products can be greener? All of them. How? All of the nonwoven products listed above can be greener than they are now.  For example:

• Sustainable initiatives in the plants themselves can be developed.

• More carbon-friendly polymers can be used.

• The practice of recycling in every aspect of the business can help.

•  The use of renewable energy offers promise.

• Improve the product designs with green initiatives in mind.

• Manufacturing efficiencies of only 10% could have positive impact.

• Smart shipping practices would save money on the bottom line and reduce
fuel use.

Points to Consider

Considerable improvements and re­duction of our global impact could be realized by adapting slight changes in public behavior and by improving our current ways of thinking.

    Initiatives and credits are being put into place by our government and these incentives are making it more attractive to prove real returns on in­vestment dollars. The use of renewable energy could have a tremendously positive impact on our planet. Recycling is a good place to start where green thinking is concerned. And none of this even considers the marketing benefits of employing green thinking in our manufacturing processes. 

• Dedicate at least 10% of your annual sales to some sort of sustainable initiative.   

• Establish sustainable directives in your manufacturing plants.  

• Track your progress… this will help to justify your initiatives.  

• Don’t be a “purist” by worrying about 100% green initiatives.  

• Be vocal about your intentions and be honest about the results.  

• Instill green thinking in every aspect of your business.

How green can nonwovens be? An­swer: more green than they are now. It is entirely up to us.                               

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