New Technology for Wipes

By Sandra Levy, Associate Editor | September 15, 2009

Innovation is alive and well throughout the industry.

When it comes to the wipes market, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that growth in certain segments of the wipes market has slowed at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. The good news is that the overall wipes market is still expanding and product line introductions are rolling out onto store shelves. It’s no wonder that suppliers to the wipes market are tripping over each other’s feet to develop new technologies for the wipes market, and they are succeeding by helping manufacturers deliver a host of new products with differentiated features for new markets. The end result of these technological innovations runs the gamut from stronger, more durable wipes to ecofriendly wipes to antibacterial and antimicrobial wipes to flushable and biodegradable wipes.

Nonwovens supplier PGI is offering wipes manufacturers a new substrate option with Spinlace technology that combines continuous filament, pulp and its proprietary Apex imaging technology, which provides three-dimensional attributes to a fabric. “Spinlace technology provides the attributes that are unique to the market and gives us the ability to provide better strength characteristics and the ability to give the product bulk, depending on what the end uses are requiring,” saidMark Landreth, PGI’s senior director of sales and product development for North America hygiene, consumer and commercial products.

Pointing out that Spinlace technology also enables PGI to offer ‘wiping’ or ‘pick-up’ characteristics, Mr. Landreth said,“ We’ve been successful in launching the technology, especially in the wipes arena and in commercial and institutional type products.”

Emphasizing that PGI isn’t focusing on commodity-type wipes, Mr. Landreth said, “We are looking towards what special end uses we can bring the attributes of the technology to in order to bring differentiation, not only from a PGI standpoint but from what consumers would see in the market. That additional strength characteristics provided through Spinlace technology helps in the cost and use equation from the standpoint of how many times they can use the product before they have to discard it. It is bringing some different technologies together to make up a hybrid technology or specialty technology.”

Mr. Landreth said he believes that Spinlace technology enables PGI to differentiate itself in the competitive market. “Spinlace was a vehicle that allowed us to bring characteristics that are key to the market such as strength and bulk. We are also doing that in products that in most cases are lighter basis weights that can perform equal to and in a lot of cases better than what the incumbent was providing.”

Spinlace technology is already being used in durable wipes used in food service and in transit industries to clean heavily stained and soiled areas.

Despite the dampening economy, Mr. Landreth said he believes that certain segments of the wipes market, such as disinfectant wipes, are poised to grow as consumers seek to protect themselves from diseases such as the swine flu. “From a product standpoint, it’s something we have an answer for those who are participating in that market that the epidemic can influence,” said Mr. Landreth.

The emergence of specialty wipes is another trend that Mr. Landreth identified. “In the past there were more generic wipes for many different applications. These days, specific wipes have been engineered to be able to meet specific applications in industries such as health care, industrial, transit authorities and food service.”

Going Green

No stranger to the ecofriendly mindset, suppliers to the wipes market are elbowing each other to showcase what environmental benefit their products can offer.

Karen Castle, vice president of sales and marketing, Americas Home and Personal Nonwovens for Ahlstrom, the world’s largest spunlace supplier, noted the importance of green technologies in wipes. “We are seeing new products based on sustainability. There’s a huge demand, or at least a lot of noise, regarding sustainability and ecofriendly. That’s one area Ahlstrom is very strong in and offers quite a range across multiple technologies,” she said.

Linked to this trend are guidelines regarding flushability. “The products out there yesterday were flushable by size. Once the consumer flushed it and it went away in the toilet, it was considered flushable. But, what happened after it left the bowl? That’s where the INDA/EDANA guidelines came in to help provide guidance to what is considered a truly flushable product,” Ms. Castle said.

Ahlstrom’s Hydraspun product is one of a few products that pass the INDA/EDANA guidelines, so that the products using this substrate can be identified as truly flushable products. Because it’s a dispersible product, it breaks down back to the fibers as it goes through the sewer pipes, eliminating future problems.

“Hydraspun is a pulp-based product and fits right into that biodegradable category so it lends itself to that ecofriendly platform. This technology has two benefits—it is truly flushable and it is ecofriendly,” Ms. Castle said.

Also focusing on green technology is a recent partnership between Lenzing and Weyerhaeuser to make cellulose fabrics. “We're looking at making fabrics based upon the Lyocell process and using the renewable raw material, wood,” said Robert Smith, new business and innovation director, for Lenzing’s Business Unit Nonwovens.

“We’ve started a pilot plant at Lenzing's headquarters in Austria and are using this to establish the process economics and to make prototypes for market assessment. The process allows us to make a range of fibers from very fine to coarse denier and to make a full range of fabrics from 10 gsm upwards.We see opportunities in hygiene, specialty wipes and technical applications like filtration and will assess these opportunities over the next six to 12 months. At this stage, we’re trying to keep the market aware of our work to gauge the commercial interest,” Mr. Smith said.

Newcomer Strateline Industries’ take on ecofriendliness is making wipes from scrap cotton that would otherwise be destined for the landfill. Joy Nunn, CEO, explained that in 1996 the company began working on developing a nonwoven for a cover sheet for adult incontinence products using cotton. “In the process of looking at bleached white cotton, the cost was prohibitive. We discovered that 240 million pounds of denim scrap were being landfilled. Can we remove the color form the indigo fabric, extract that color and flash bleach it to a bright white? and then make a nonwoven out of that utilizing an airlaid or wetlaid system? We discovered we could. Our technology is centered around the reutilization of post-industrial waste streams and putting those into high quality nonwovens, for baby, household cleaning and the industrial market,” said Ms. Nunn.

Two years ago Strateline began making nonwovens from scrapped T-shirt materials. Through a partnership with Rockline Industries the material is made into wipes that are sold at Wal-Mart.

Emphasizing that the initial goal was to save money on raw materials and make a disposable product, Ms. Nunn said, “People weren’t realizing that clippings fell off those tables—if you can turn them back into a quality fiber, then you can go back and repurpose them back into textiles, nonwovens and paper. We built an entire business structure around the utilization of post industrial textile waste streams. There are 98 billion pounds of post-industrial waste that are landfilled on an annual basis globally.”

Strateline and Circle, part of the Sustainable Solutions Network of companies regenerate fibers from cotton, polyester, polypropylene, tencel and rayon.

Pointing out that sustainability and green products are typically more expensive, Ms. Nunn said that only 3% of the population is going to spend more money for green products.

“Everybody else is expecting to buy sustainable products, because that’s the environment we’re living in and they don’t want to pay more for it,” she explained. “We developed the technology so we can untwist cotton fibers and put them back into a textile or nonwoven process, so they are as good, if not better than a virgin product. We developed the technology and wrote a patent on making wipes material from a spunlace process utilizing beautiful white material sourced from post industrial cotton clippings and shirt clippings and turning it back into a quality fiber that has the integrity of virgin fiber. We finish the fiber so it operates in the nonwovens facilities on traditional nonwovens lines so it can be repurposed back into a high quality raw material or wipes material.”

Noting that the carbon footprint is negligible, Ms. Nunn boasted, “You have a beautiful bright white product, and you’ve never taken it back through processing, and it doesn’t have any bleach or chemicals. You can make it bulkier and heavier so it is a nicer wipe to use on a baby or for a household task.

When Strateline takes a brand or retailer’s waste streams, a long, medium and short link of fiber come out during the patented process. “The long can be re-spun back into textiles, the medium link goes back into spunlaced or airlaid nonwovens and the short fibers are repurposed back into packaging,” she said.

Strateline Industries will launch a new commercial product from 100% sustainable fibers in the wipes arena within the next six to eight months.

New Technologies Cropping Up

The cup runneth over when it comes to the numerous technologies that nonwovens suppliers are tapping to differentiate their products. From embossing technology, to advancements in carding technology to the introduction of fiber blends, the growing number of technological innovations are providing a way for suppliers to stand out in the wipes arena.

Margareta Huldén, director of products for Fin­land-based Suominen Nonwovens said manufacturers can differentiate their products using the company’s carded and hydroentangled technology as well as hydro embossing and thermal embossing technology.

“We supply both for big brands and converters who sell to private label. Embossing is done in line so it is cost effective. Besides having your product look different, you can get better performance qualities if you don’t have a flat surface. If you have a wet floor wipe, if it is too smooth it tends to stick to the floor because the friction gets too high. With texturing you get better cleaning because it moves more easily and into the three dimensional structure so you can pick up the dirt,” she said.

Noting that the industry has seen a move toward hybrid technologies combining spunbonding and hydroentangling, Ms. Huldén believes this development has limitations in the commercial market and that cost savings would accrue only if there are high volumes of very similar products. “As soon as you take out your carded web and use spunlaying you have less flexibility in your lines. If you want to have versatile opportunities using different raw materials, carded spunlace material still provides the best opportunity.”

Ms. Huldén cited advancements in carding technology. “We’re seeing faster lines and the use of different kinds of fibers, such as natural fibers, cotton and fibers other than the standard polyester viscose mixes,” she said.

In addition to combining processes, another new technology cropping up in the wipes market is the introduction of fiber blends. Susan Stansbury, director of Converting Influence, a converters’ group inWisconsin, said she believes the trend of combining nonwovens technologies, such as hydroentangled and airlaid is growing. These hybrids allow the final wipes products to combine benefits of multiple technologies.

“Hydro, which is one of the newer technologies is very design friendly. Hydroentangled has used carded technology for some time for its synthetic portion,” she explained. “Carded is more often used for dry wipers, shop towels or restaurant wipe ups. It doesn’t tend to be as soft. When you put it in the hydroentangling process it becomes a synthetic fiber. When it combines that synthetic fiber, when you pull out a wipe from a canister or other package, you notice its stretchiness. If the airlaid material is made up mostly of cellulose, which comes from trees, it tends to be very absorbent but not stretchy and it is used mostly in flat packs and tubs.”

Ms. Stansbury said, “Some of the fabrics have a two-sided feature—one side is rough and the other side is softer. For skin contact, you can have an exfoliating side for skin and a mop up, or softer side. You can design the wipe to be highly absorbent for cleaning surfaces in a restaurant with a scrubbing side for grease and a side with a rougher nonwovens fabric.”

Ms. Stansbury also noted the emergence of more earth friendly fabrics with cellulose content derived from trees and plant matter, such as PLA (polylactic acid), which is mostly derived from corn.

Additives and wet solutions are also making inroads and providing product differentiation in the wipes market. “They deliver even more performance factors, from antibacterial to grease cutting. In cosmetics you are seeing this in make-up remover, sunscreen in a wipe, or a tanning promotion,” she said.

Ms. Stansbury echoed Mr. Landreth’s sentiments concerning an increase in the development of niche specialty products especially in the pet, glass cleaning, furniture polish and automotive markets.“Additives and solutions are making it possible to roll out those niches,” said Stansbury.

When it comes to ecofriendly products, Ms. Stansbury believes the use of organic natural scents and ingredients such as lemon and orange will grow. Attractive wipes packages that are designed for the counter instead of under the sink are also making a debut “One example is Method brand wipes at Target. On the packaging side, you have more styles and more ergonomic features,” said Ms. Stansbury.

Technological advances in wipes has also sparked new lidding features. “There are better-sealed products, with better integrity and designer features used in the openings of products,” she said.

Converting processes are also in flux, thanks to new technology. “They incorporate more possibilities than ever before on a single production line. Some things that had to be done in separate processes can be combined,” said Ms. Stansbury who predicted online printing will replace printing at a separate factory and more packaging options will be available at the end of that same production line.“That would mainly help for efficiency. I see the potential for more emerging combinations.” said Ms. Stansbury.

Will consumers pay for wipes that allow manufacturers to differentiate their products? Phillip Mango, president of Phillip Mango Consulting believes consumers care about the environment, but in the current economy they can’t afford to pay for ecofriendly products and want someone else to pay for it.

“The problem is that the substrates required to make the products compliant with the guidelines are more expensive. A lot of nonwovens companies are working on how to lower costs and keep costs down. Their goal is to come up with a product that is green and free to the consumer. Manufacturers who have products that really meet INDA guidelines on flushability and are biodegradable are subsidizing the consumer today. In six to 10 months, when the economy turns around, they are pretty convinced consumers will be willing to spend more money to get an environmentally sustainable, reliable product,” he said.

Finally, Ms. Stansbury assessed the situation in these words: “The industry has held up very well to tough economic times. The niche areas of cosmetics and personal skin care continues to grow. Now there seems to be some stabilizing of the economic situation and wipes are poised to continue their growth,” she said.

Related Application:

Related Technology: