Imagine these scenarios: A landscaper lays a roll of nonwovens material before planting a garden at your neighborhood shopping mall. Several weeks pass and upon close inspection there is no sign of weed growth. Meanwhile, a commercial grower is applying a nonwoven material laminated with a copper hydroxide product that will prevent weed roots from growing or establishing themselves.
These scenarios and others like them are being turned into reality thanks to nonwovens producers who are offering a slew of groundbreaking products for agriculture and landscape applications. What’s unique about some of the products sprouting up is that they are imbued with ecofriendly and sustainable characteristics, a trend that may serve as a bellwether for the future growth of nonwovens in the agriculture sector.
One company offering environmental friendly nonwoven options for agricultural end uses is NatureWorks. The company makes Ingeo PLA resin, derived from corn, for a more eco-friendly polymer option. According to Robert Green, NatureWorks’ Americas director of fibers for nonwovens, “The unique characteristic of our material is that it is made from corn sugar so it’s an annually renewable plant-based raw material that’s replacing conventional plastics like polypropylenes and polyesters which come from petroleum-based sources. It gives you a bio-based raw material source so you have more stable pricing over time that is not as subject to fluctuating oil prices. It’s more environmentally friendly in that fewer greenhouse gases are produced from the manufacturing of the product—compared to polyesters about 60% fewer greenhouse gases are generated and less energy is required,” said Mr. Green.
One company applying PLA to agriculture is Easy Gardener. The company’s Weed Block Natural, a PLA/polypropylene bicomponent product is being used in weed control fabrics. Another company, DS Fibers, manufactures Hortaflex, a weed block fabric that uses Ingeo for mulch and barrier fleeces (preventing weeds from growing). Hortaflex is sold in Europe.
Companies are also using NatureWorks’ material in blends in some agricultural film applications such as mulch films for preventing weed growth and retaining heat in the soil.
Pointing out that he expects growth in the agriculture market, Mr. Green said he represents NatureWorks in The Sustainable Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), a group that includes farmers, academia and other advisers who are exploring the use of nonwovens in agricultural applicators.
“There’s interest in using bio-based materials. If you can use materials that can be tilled back into the soil or disposed of more easily than petrochemically derived products, you reduce the burdens on the farmers.”
This is because conventional materials such as polyester or polypropylene have to be removed from the fields and farmers have to pay to get those products landfilled or disposed of. Renewable materials which are compostable, can offer a solution, by providing opportunities for the material to be degraded and tilled back into the soil or removed and composted.
Weed Blockers and Crop Covers
Freudenberg Nonwovens is another company on a tear in the agriculture market. At its Durham, NC plant, the company is expanding its 20-year-old Lutradur spunbond polyester nonwovens line with the launch of Lutradur Eco.
“In the last year we extended Lutradur to include recycled material content. The company offers Lutradur Eco Post Industrial Recycle (PIR) and Lutradur Eco Post Consumer Recycle (PCR) for landscape weed block. With PIR we buy industrial material, which we reprocess to produce a weed block nonwoven fabric. We are the only company selling 100% polyester spunbond, which provides 100% recyclability. The new product uses post consumer recycled from bottles. The good thing is that this prevents millions of bottles from going to the landfills,” said Oscar Fontalvo, Freudenberg Nonwovens’ business segment manager.
Emphasizing that customers can claim LEED points using Freudenberg’s offering, Mr. Fontalvo said,“Freudenberg is very committed to sustainable development. This is something that Freudenberg started years ago and Durham’s management decided to invest heavily in technology that allows us to be at this stage right now. They were visionaries and knew this was something that would come and stay.”
Mr. Fontalvo envisions that the market for weed block will grow as more people come to see the benefits of the fabric. “North America is a strong market. Europe is also growing with the U.K. and Germany leading. Scandinavia is starting to grow. Businesses in those countries will be higher because there aren’t may people using it, but they are going to learn more. Lutradur Eco is available in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe,” said Mr. Fontalvo.
Freudenberg also offers a line of polypropylene spunbond crop covers under the Lutrasil brand. Produced in Germany, the line includes Lutrasil Pro19, Lutrasil Pro23, Lutrasil Pro30, Lutrasil Pro50 Black, Lutrasil Pro60 and the L-17. All of these individual crop cover product groups are available in widths exceeding 20 meters. They are also available with reinforced edges to strengthen the crop cover layer especially at the mechanically stressed edges during the handling while the nonwoven is unwound from the roll and laid down on the crop cover field.
Lutrasil Pro products are available in more than 80 different product versions to meet various crop cover and geographic and climate needs. Special products can be made according to farmers’ needs and are stabilized to withstand UV light for multiple use.
Another company concentrating on the agriculture market is Canadian-based Texel. The company’s Tex-R process involves coating a nonwoven material with a compound called Spin Out, that is a copper hydroxide product. “When a weed or root comes in contact with it, the copper in the fabric keeps the root from growing or establishing,” said Jim Gideon, U.S. Eastern sales representative for Texel.
Tex-R is used by commercial growers. “We make a disc called Geo Disc that goes on top of the container for their plants so that they don’t have to go in and hand weed. Anything that comes up won’t grow and anything that falls on top of the pot won’t come up,” said Mr. Gideon.
The discs, which are made from a needlepunch nonwoven coated with Spin Out fit containers from one to 25 gallons. “Sometimes weeds go in the container and they have to hand weed or put herbicides in. This cuts down on their costs because they don’t have to reapply herbicides or go in and hand weed these pots. It saves them labor and money,”said Mr. Gideon.
Texel also makes several other products with the copper coating including a barrier product, which is used to keep roots from trees growing into sidewalks and to prevent tree roots at golf courses from going into golf cart paths.
Texel also makes Tac 150 to prevent weeds from coming up in lakes. “It sinks down to the bottom and keeps any weeds or water lilies from coming up into the lake. Homeowners who have lakeside properties can use it or it can be used commercially. We offer it to the golf industry. It’s a breathable nonwoven that allows air and gases to come up through it but it doesn’t allow weeds to grow,” said Mr. Gideon.
Yet another offering from Texel is Compost Tex, a compost cover that is for commercial use. “A lot of municipalities are now taking their waste and turning it into compost and are using our covers to keep water off of it but let it be able to breathe and let the gases and air come through it,” said Mr. Gideon.
Texel is also applying its technology to the green roof and green walls industries with its Tex-R fabric. “It is going into buildings where they put a membrane down and grow plants on a rooftop. Most of the bigger cities are putting it in to slow down rain water. We put in a green roof. We use the Tex-R fabric with the copper on it as a root barrier. This filters the water down and it slowly disperses it so you don’t have so much run off. It’s a place that we think there’s going to be growth in the future. Green walls involves growing plants vertically on walls for decorative purposes and to filter toxins,” said Mr. Gideon.
For the residential market, Texel offers Soltex winter protection fabric. In addition to protecting grass from damage from winter road salt and sand as well as from dryness due to lack of snow cover, Soltex creates a micro-climate that promotes rapid greening of existing grass. It also allows seeds to be spread in the fall that will germinate under the sheet during the spring thaw.
Turkish rolls good producer Mogul is also focusing on the agriculture market. The company’s polypropylene spunbond fabrics sold under the Agrimol brand are used for crop covers and mulching. Mogul also offers a multiplex wide width welded crop cover up to 16 meters wide, and Allucoat aluminum coated fabrics for light reflection and protection.
“Users want economical and long lasting solutions as well as biodegradable and eco-friendly products,” said Serkan Gogus, Mogul’s commercial director.
Finally, looking to the future Mr. Gogus said he foresees growth in developing countries for nonwovens in agriculture. “It’s a growth market as farmers recently become familiar with such products. The growth of the sector will be in developing countries as consciousness and income levels increase. Government subsidies are critical as farmers want to get more yields from smaller areas, use less pesticides and less water and reduce operating costs. I believe innovative products that can help in these areas will help the growth of usage,” said Mr. Gogus.