Fibers Come Full Circle

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | June 10, 2009

demands for sustainability, recyclability and conservation drive raw material markets

What comes around, goes around. This is especially true when it comes to the attitude of nonwovens makers, retailers and consumers toward sustainable raw materials. With everyone’s eco-consciousness on the rise, natural fiber suppliers are enjoying their position as a renewable and compostable alternative to synthetic polymers. But at the same time producers of traditional materials like polyester and polypropylene are showing they too can ride the green wave by boosting their recyclability efforts while conserving energy, water and landfill space.

The Natural Advantage

The most well-known natural fiber is cotton, a raw material that’s quickly making inroads beyond its leading nonwovens segment, baby wipes, where it is sold in scoured and bleached form to offer whiteness and absorbency. Cotton is also naturally hypoallergenic. “Cotton is now becoming more prevalent in other market segments such as facial wipes, front sheets on baby diapers and incontinence products,” reported George Hargrove, vice president, sales and marketing at Barnhardt Manufacturing. “Additionally, cotton is more prevalent in topsheets for feminine pads and medical products.”

    Not only are consumers looking for cotton, Mr. Hargrove said they now want certified organic cotton. To answer this call, the company operates two cotton purification facilities that are organic-certified. “Several new products in the European and U.S. markets containing organic cotton have been introduced in the past six months.”

    Even with U.S. farmers switching some of their cotton crops to corn (see sidebar on page 28), cotton continues to increase its share in nonwoven fabrics, a trend cotton suppliers attribute to retailers’ heightened awareness of the benefits of cotton. “Market research documents that consumers prefer cotton next to their skin,” stated Mr. Hargrove. “This combined with the enhanced performance resulting from cotton and the consumer recognition of the Cotton Seal leads to a powerful combination.”

    U.S. farmers have also made strides in addressing the sustainability focus of U.S consumers. Recent earth-friendly accomplishments include a 49% reduction in water used for irrigation of cotton and a 66% energy reduction in the past 20 years. Cotton farms in the U.S. have also lowered their soil loss by 34% due to conservation efforts in soil tillage. Rounding out cotton’s ecological merits is the fact that cotton is renewable, with an eight- to nine-month life cycle.

    “At Barnhardt, we have reduced water consumption for our cotton purification process by 40 million gallons per year resulting from investments in water recycling facilities,” reported Mr. Hargrove. “Due to our sustainability efforts, we have experienced a 22% reduction of KWH per pound of purified cotton in the past five years.”

Wood-based Wonders

As for viscose, producers of this material say it is ideally suited to help the industry meet up-and-coming environmental needs because it is manufactured from 100% renewable wood pulp, which is grown in managed plantations. One company active in this area is European viscose supplier Kelheim Fibres, which targets hygiene, high-tech clothing and technical markets with specialty fibers that are certified as compostable (DIN EN 13432:2000-12). The company has also recently secured Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for its products, which guarantees that its pulp comes from sustainably-managed plantations.

    “Our Galaxy brand features a trilobal cross-section resulting in a 30%-35% higher absorption capacity compared to standard viscose fibers,” remarked Mat­thew North, commercial director. “This is why it’s a leading fiber in tampons. Furthermore, our products are certified according to the Oeko-Tex 100 standard for the most sensitive product area, namely for use in baby applications.”

    Offering man-made cellulose fibers based on wood-based raw materials derived from certified managed forests, Lenzing offers a portfolio of products under its Lenzing Viscose and Tencel brand names. Due to their cellulosic origin, Lenzing fibers combine functionality with environmental responsibility and target applications such as wipes, medical drapes, gauzes and tampons as well as high-tech electronics and filter components.

    According to Heinrich Jakob, marketing and sales director for the nonwoven fibers business unit, the company’s current research and development work focuses on the technical fibers area. “The cellulosic polymer backbone and high purity of Tencel offers an ideal precursor for carbon fibers used in high temperature insulation. For filtration, we have Viscose fibers with ion exchange properties.”

    In addition to participating in forest management certification programs, another ongoing environmental initiative at Lenzing is making sure products are biodegradable. “Since wipes are made for single use,” said Mr. Jakob, “it’s important to ensure that these products can be disposed of with a clear conscience.” He ex­plained last year nonwoven fabrics made from Lenzing Viscose and Tencel were certified and registered by DIN CERTCO as compostable materials.

    Lenzing fibers are also responding to another key demand in the wipes market—flushability. It's Tencel short cut fibers provide strength to flushable products and still disperse easily in water.

Synthetic Solutions

Sustainability and recyclability are not just messages coming from natural fiber suppliers; polymer suppliers are also underway with initiatives proving that they too understand the importance of environmental stewardship. For instance, one recent undertaking is Clear Path Recycling, a joint venture company between PET resin and staple fiber producer DAK Americas and Shaw Industries, a carpet manufacturer and leading floor covering provider.

    Announced in April, the initiative was created to produce recycled PET (RPET) from post-consumer PET bottles. DAK and Shaw will both utilize the RPET material as a feedstock to enhance the value and sustainability of their offerings. Clear Path Recycling plans to build a facility to recycle more than 280 million pounds annually of PET bottles, or about five billion bottles. DAK and Shaw will primarily use the RPET material in their polyester-based products. An estimated 25% of the total recycled material produced will be sold through merchant sales. Construction of the first phase of the new facility is expected to begin in mid-2009 and be operational by the first quarter of 2010.

   “Clear Path Recycling is a major milestone for DAK Americas and reinforces our commitment to protect the environment for future generations,” offered Hector Cam­beros, president and CEO of DAK Americas. “The venture allows DAK to deliver on the growing requirements of both its PET resin and polyester staple fiber customer base for products with recycled content.”

    According to the companies, the joint venture will reduce the use of landfills and improve internal process economics for DAK and Shaw. By recycling 280 million pounds of PET bottles, over one million cubic yards per year of landfill space will be conserved. The energy savings related to the operation will reach approximately 2.5 trillion BTUs of energy annually, which is equal to the amount of primary energy necessary to power 18,000 U.S. homes per year, according to Energy Information Ad­min­istration data.

Scraps ‘n Shoddy

If the old saying, “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure” holds true, then textile waste recycling specialists like Leigh Fibers are on to something big. The company supplies colored shoddy for automotive and home insulation, synthetic shoddy for furniture and bedding, high temperature shoddy for FR applications, blended shoddy for molding and thread shoddy for filtration.

    Recently the company has put a unique twist on recycling by using a different natural fiber, wool, for blended shoddy automotive seating applications. “The benefit is that wool is naturally fire retardant,” explained Parris Hicks-Chernez, business development analyst. “Plus we have natural fibers for oil absorbents and erosion control. Another new market for us is the recycling of carpets, which are used by the industry for underlay pads.”

    Beyond denim and wool, Leigh Fibers is even seeing an increase in demand for natural options like kenaf and blends of natural fibers for recyclability and green content. Earth-friendliness in the form of recycled materials boosts cost efficiencies, which is an equally important consideration, according to Ms. Hicks-Chernez. “We are seeing an increase in calls from companies a­ttempting to cut their costs by using recycled materials. The marketing is also shifting away from smaller, less stable companies toward the larger companies.”

    For Leigh, landfills are also an important piece of the environmental puzzle. The company helps manufacturers with waste stream management issues, closing the loop and helping them divert their waste from the landfill. “Every pound of fiber that Leigh sells is a pound of fiber diverted from the landfill,” said Ms. Hicks-Chernez.

     Despite these efforts, she said, Leigh is finding being green is not always easy. “It’s a challenge to get purchasers to understand that using a recycled fiber will not necessarily negatively impact their production efficiencies but can positively impact their bottom line and company image in the mind of the consumer.”