caLet’s face it. Succeeding in the nonwovens industry isn’t just about selling engineered fabrics anymore. Call it the greening of nonwovens. As consumers and end users increasingly seek sustainable and ecofriendly products, nonwoven producers and converters are vying to be a tour de force when it comes to sustainability.
Whether it’s the substrate, manufacturing process or packaging, producers and converters are employing a plethora of measures that are kinder to the environment. And these tactics are boosting the bottom line. But beware: the path from green to gold is a serious undertaking. It involves innovation in raw material and technology, the creation of sustainable products that don’t compromise efficacy, training of in-house staff as well as consumer education.
One longstanding fiber producer making headway with green products is Lenzing. As a world leader in manufacturing cellulosic fibers, Lenzing produces Viscose and Tencel.
“Tencel offers a future-friendly footprint. This sustainable benefit has been confirmed by a Life Cycle Analysis conducted by University of Utrecht,” said Nick Hrinko, marketing director, Americas, Business Unit Nonwovens.
The technology used to make Tencel is a closed loop process. This environmentally responsible process generates fibers with excellent performance properties for the nonwovens industry. It produces bulky, compression resistant fabrics that do not collapse when wet. The fabric remains open to absorb and release liquid on demand or wipe clean efficiently. The high wet strength of Tencel delivers a durable fabric, which translates to a better value to the consumer. The wipe stays in use longer, requiring fewer wipes to complete the cleaning task,” said Mr. Hrinko.
Lenzing Viscose and Tencel fibers are made from a renewable resource—wood—which makes them naturally pure, soft and absorbent. These efforts are translating to success in the wipes market as consumers increasingly press for wipes that are sustainable and equally effective. Mr. Hrinko said the fibers are also biodegradable. “We source wood or pulp that derives from sustainably managed forests. This is an essential element of sustainability and our business management,” he said.
Lenzing’s investment strategy is further evidence of its commitment to sustainability. Fiber production capacity is slated to increase from 700,000 metric tons to one million metric tons by 2014. Part of the investment includes the expansion of Lenzing’s Tencel production site in Mobile, AL. “An existing production line will be modernized and upgraded to create additional fiber capacities for wipes and baby care products in the Americas,” said Mr. Hrinko.
Environmentally friendly regulations have been credited with driving the sustainability craze in Europe, but, in North America, consumers are behind the wheel, driving sustainability to new places.
Nonwovens supplier Ahlstrom offers a number of environmentally friendly products across all of its market areas. Hydraspun dispersible flushable wipes contain pulp to provide a great value to the consumer. “It is flushable and biodegradable. It prevents a strain on municipalities’ sewage treatment systems and it passes ISO14851 biodegradability tests. The two manufacturing sites which produce Hydraspun have made great strides using energy efficiently, reducing emissions and waste year after year,” said Kyra Dorsey, Ahlstrom’s home and personal product manager.
In the food and beverage area, Bioweb, a tea bag material made of polylactic acid (PLA) is another green product from Ahlstrom. “It is fully biodegradable and compostable,” said Anna Maija Wessman, Ahlstrom’s vice president of sustainability.
Meanwhile in filtration, Disruptor filter media improve water quality by removing submicron contaminants through a natural positive charge that is effective in fresh and briny water.
The demand for green products is greatest in sectors that are “close to the consumer,” such as food, food packaging, household and personal cleaning. “These are opportune areas to become more environmentally friendly in because consumers feel that they can make ecologically safe purchasing decisions every day,” said Ms. Wessman.
Mr. Hrinko agreed that consumers are voting for green products with their wallets. “Simmons Research has been tracking this (trend) for five years and reports that more than half of Americans think green and behave green. If a green product is available, those consumers will buy this over the competition,” said Mr. Hrinko.
Lenzing conducted its first consumer surveys in the U.S. and Europe last summer. “The surveys gave us insights into what consumers are looking for in different categories of wipes, namely baby, household and hygiene. “The majority of consumers said they would like to know what the wipe is made of. Consumers expect wipes to perform the task they are designed for while being good for the environment and that they are competitively priced. We have had requests for more information on the sustainability of our fibers from the entire value chain—roll goods manufacturers, convertors, consumer companies and retailers,” said Mr. Hrinko.
Imerys, a diversified mining company that participates in the consumer, building and construction, paper and other industrial segments is seeing demand for sustainable products in all of these sectors, but the demand is particularly apparent in consumer segments. “One of the most visible outcomes in this quest for greater sustainability is the continued downguaging of materials used in the construction of absorbent hygiene products. “Imerys has helped enable this trend with advances in fine minerals used in hygiene films and nonwovens,” said Octavius Davies, business development manufacturer for the Americas.
Imerys developed the FiberLink family of engineered calcium carbonate specifically to allow customers to replace a percentage of polymer resins in the manufacture of fibers and nonwovens. “Not only does this impart favorable properties such as softness, opacity and cost reduction, FiberLink has a much lower carbon footprint than polymers used in fiber and nonwovens production,” said Craig DePorter, business development manager for Europe and the Middle East.
Personal care products producer SCA is also headed in a greener direction. Kersti Strandqvist, senior vice president/sustainability explained how efforts in this area are beneficical to everyone. “There are several benefits with green products. Smaller products require less transport which together with efficient production reduces costs. But more importantly, it is what customers demand and therefore is a means to improved business success.”
Kimberly-Clark is also going the extra mile to woo consumers seeking eco-friendly products. In 2009, the company launched Huggies Pure & Natural diapers. The diaper is manufactured using more sustainable materials than other Huggies brand diapers. “A number of these same materials deliver meaningful value to the consumer in terms of caring for her baby. Huggies brand Pure & Natural diaper lining is made from 50% PLA. The diaper’s outer cover is made of organic cotton and the print graphics contain fewer inks than other diapers. Pure & Natural plastic packaging contains 20% Post Consumer Recycled (PCR) materials to reduce the use of petroleum-based plastics,” said Victoria Tylinski, brand manager fo K-C’s Huggies diapers.
“There is a segment of consumers who are specifically looking for diapers with environmental benefits. Many consumers want to relieve the guilt of throwing diapers in landfills. They want to know that the brand they are purchasing is doing something for the environment so they can feel better about purchasing that product. However, they are not willing to trade off quality of the product for environmental benefits,” said Ms. Tylinski.
K-C also uses fluff pulp from certified sustainable forestry practices in its Huggies, Pull-Ups, GoodNites and Depend brands. “K-C brands use Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) fluff pulp. The Alliance for Environmental Technology has stated that Elemental Chlorine-Free bleaching-based on chlorine dioxide is the superior choice for pulp and paper manufacture. The science, a proven environmental track record, and strong market demand demonstrate that ECF is without rival in terms of pollution prevention, resource conservation and product quality,” said Ms. Tylinski.
K-C also uses recycled fibers and sources from suppliers who have certified their fiber procurement activities and forestlands. More than 98% of the company’s wood fiber comes from suppliers who have gained an independent certification for their sustainable practices, according to Ms. Tylinski.
Bostik has also jumped on the sustainability bandwagon.“Bostik has taken a broad view of sustainability and is methodical in our approach to understanding sustainability and the ways we can positively impact the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environment and social. Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs) are one way Bostik is pursuing sustainability responsibly. Bostik offers adhesives that run at lower application temperatures which help to reduce energy use and provides excellent cost-in-use products that enable our customers to use less adhesive while maintaining high performance which reduces energy, material usage and transport across the supply chain,” said Courtney Korselt, global communications and insight manager, nonwovens/tape and label.
In addition to tapping earth friendly raw materials, nonwovens producers are focusing on being greener in their manufacturing processes.
“We have defined the Ahlstrom Sustainability Framework, which consists of sustainable sourcing, resource efficient, low emission manufacturing and life cycle thinking for the products covering the whole value chain. Ahlstrom has instituted a certification program for its main forest fiber sites to make sure its wood fiber comes from sustainably managed forests. We have continuously improved our environmental performance in manufacturing and have a very good track record. The products we make have a positive, sustainable impact. They are always made for a purpose with the highest resource efficiency, adding maximum value to minimum fibers,” said Ms.Wessman.
Ahlstrom’s sales of PEFC and FSC certified products have grown dramatically over the past few years. “Customers are looking for suppliers to build sustainability features into the products, including third party certification, renewable resources, natural materials and recycled content,” said Ms. Wessman.
SCA is also ahead of the curve when it comes to green manufacturing. “Since the early 1990s, SCA has worked systematically to develop environmentally sound hygiene products based on Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). LCAs cover everything from sourcing and production to after-use handling. As a result of this work, the climate footprint of SCA’s personal care products has been reduced and is third-party verified by IVL, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute,” said Ms. Strandqvist.
SCA’s products contain fiber, which is renewable, and the company recommends that its raw material suppliers work with energy efficiency and include renewable energy in the production process. “From an LCA perspective the energy choice plays an important role in the raw material’s climate footprint. In January 2011, SCA launched an updated hygiene supplier standard including factors such as quality, product safety, environment, chemicals and Code of Conduct compliance,” said Ms. Strandqvist.
During the last 20 years SCA has reduced the weight of “open” diapers by 33% and packaging material by 40%. “SCA is Europe’s largest private forest owner and all of it is FSC certified, the world’s most severe forest management certification systems,” said Ms. Strandqvist.
Not sitting on the sidelines, Ireland-based fiber supplier Wellman International has been involved in recycling since 1972. The company has been recycling post-consumer PET bottles since 1990. According to a recent independent LCA study, Wellman International’s rPET fiber has an overall lower environmental impact than any other polyester fiber in the study.
Another experienced player, Sandler AG is on the same page as the other players when it comes to making a commitment to sustainability in manufacturing.
Uwe Hornfeck, Sandler’s vice president of sales, logistics and purchasing said, “Through our ‘Less is Best to Nature’ project, which was started in 2008, we succeeded in making raw material and energy savings in the manufacture of our nonwovens for wet wipes using the spunlace process. In cooperation with our customers, the basis weights of our new generation of wipes were decreased while maintaining the usual high level of functionality. Depending on the item, this allowed raw material savings up to 30%.”
For the automotives industry, Sandler has developed lightweight, single-polymer materials that are recyclable and contribute to reducing fuel consumption.
“We took part in so-called IPP (Integrated Product Policy) projects on numerous occasions. The aim of IPP is to record and minimize the environmental impact of a product in all stages of its life cycle, from development to the extraction of the raw materials to disposal. The projects are carried out with the cooperation and support of the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment and Public Health. In one project, Sandler collaborated with project partners to develop simulation software for the automotive industry that made it possible to display and optimize various production parameters, such as the component weight. The need for cost- and energy-intensive pilot production runs is eliminated,” said Dr. Hornfeck.
Sandler also monitors the energy consumption at its production plants. The company substantially lowered CO2-emissions in its production facilities. “Transportation is also a key point in minimizing CO2-emissions in the lifecycle of our products. Intra-company logistics were restructured in order to minimize unnecessary movements of goods. We also made efforts to avoid empty trips and were able to shift 8% of our raw material deliveries to rail. To an increasing extent, fibers made of natural resources are used in the production of our goods. Viscose, for example, accounts for a quarter of our raw materials. In addition, cotton fibers and PLA are utilized. In accordance with these principles, it was a matter of course for Sandler AG to obtain certification according to the FSC and PEFC standards, which refer to a sustainable handling of wood and products made of it, such as viscose. Sandler is now a certified user of sustainably produced raw materials in the manufacture of our spunlaced nonwovens,” said Dr. Hornfeck.
Cotton Is King
Not sitting on the sidelines, Barnhardt Manufacturing, a pioneer in the green movement has been selling recycled cotton for over 60 years.
Barnhardt offers UltraClean Comber, a by-product of the yarn spinning process. Applications include fem care, baby wipes, swabs and medical balls.
Barnhardt’s newest product, Eco-Blend utilizes fabric cutting waste that has been refiberized and blended with virgin cotton or comber.
George Hargrove, Barnhardt’s vice president of sales and marketing said, “Cotton has long been recognized as a sustainable product as it is renewable annually and is 100% biodegradable. We have reduced our energy consumption by 8% and water consumption by 33% per product output since 2007. We have reduced our GHG emissions by 6% per product output since 2007. These amounts have been verified by an independent licensed body during an LCA study conducted in 2010. Barnhardt Natural Fibers Group completed its LCA study in 2010 to benchmark improvements we have made to this point and to also provide a watermark for our future developments that will further improve our sustainability efforts.”
Being green is also the focus of T.J. Beall Company’s strategy for success. The company’s UltraClean product is a mechanically cleaned virgin cotton raw material made from U.S. grown cotton.
Lawson Gary, president of manufacturing said, “We are seeing a lot of enthusiasm from the industry to combine more natural staple fibers in blends for different carded technologies. The most interest currently is from the personal and home care markets.”
Recycling waste to create sustainable nonwoven product and keep materials out of the landfill is another trend that is gaining steam.
Aquafil, a European market leader in carpet yarn manufacturing, textile yarn production and polymer engineering is partnering with Colbond, a leading producer and supplier of nonwoven primary carpet backings. Colbond will use Aquafil’s Econyl, post-industrial and post-consumer recycled polyamide-6 to extend its range of environmentally friendly carpet backings. A substantial and growing part of Econyl is generated from carpet waste.
Colbond will be producing its new environmentally sustainable nonwovens containing recycled polyamide-6 (rPA-6) derived exclusively from Aquafil’s Econyl process. Branded “Colback Green” these innovative backings comprise bi-component filaments with a post-consumer recycled bottle scrap PET core and an Econyl rPA-6 skin.
Obtaining zero landfill is becoming the ultimate goal for players who are seeking a more sustainable manufacturing process.
Nice-Pak recently announced that two of its four plants have gone zero landfill.
Paul Vanderheyden, vice president of operations said, “We’re working very aggressively to reduce the amount of waste we have in the manufacturing process. The best way to handle your waste is to not have it‚—zero landfill status. We had been recycling certain materials such as corrugates, plastic products and stretch wrap. There was waste that we were not able to find a home for from a recycling perspective so that was landfilled. The biggest percentage of that waste going to the landfill was rejected product—wet stacks that for one reason or another were not acceptable for sale.”
In its Green Bay, WI plant, Nice-Pak works with a company that creates pellets from scrap material and sells it to utility companies and paper mills. “There’s legislation in a number of states requiring utilities to get a certain percentage of their fuel from alternate sources,” said Mr. Vanderheyden.
In its Indianapolis, IN plant, Nice-Pak works with a company that uses its waste to generate steam that is sold to a local utility for heating.
Nice-Pak is also offering greener packaging to its customers. The company recently developed Eco-Pak, a soft pack delivery system that holds high-efficacy surface disinfecting wet wipes.
“We replaced a canister with a package that is better and more usable from the consumer standpoint but is also significantly a real winner from a sustainability perspective. It has a lot less packaging material, is more compact and much easier to ship. There is a large reduction in the greenhouse gases that come about shipping the product compared to the canister product it replaced. We’re always looking for ways to reduce the amount of packing materials that we have in our products without compromising their effectiveness but at the same time, finding ways to use less of the different packaging materials,” said Mr. Vanderheyden.
Nice-Pak is also supplying higher count packages in an effort to help customers be more ecofriendly. “That allows you to have a net reduction in the amount of packaging materials per wipe,” said Mr. Vanderheyden.
When it comes to developing products that are sustainable, the buzz words are flushable and biodegradable.
Rockline Industries recently introduced Moist Toilet Tissue, a product which is flushable and biodegradable according to the INDA/EDANA flushability guidelines. Josh Eldridge, global environmental sustainability coordinator, said, “The innovation in this new product is that it breaks down and biodegrades in the waste stream and prevents the clogging of household plumbing and municipal treatment systems. As proven by the recent study at Berkeley University, if a flushed product fails to break apart in the waste stream, it clogs household and municipal pumps and screens resulting in greater energy use, increased labor to clean pumps and screens, and increased unbiodegraded mass that is sent to landfills,” said Mr. Eldridge.
Also providing a green alternative in the wipes market is Chicopee. The company recently expanded its J-Cloth line of wipes to include J-Cloth 3000, a nonwoven cloth that is compostable and biodegradable. The company claims that the wipes have an open, wavy texture which enables efficient pick-up of any dirt and makes it easy to rinse, ensuring longer freshness.
While many brand name manufacturers are willing to jump on the green bandwagon, some companies are grappling with how to be sustainable and how to measure their sustainability efforts.
In response, Cotton Incorporated, known for educating consumers, is reaching out to brands and retailers in an effort to provide education about cotton and sustainability.
“We have a program where we take brands and retailers to farms to show them how cotton is harvested and grown and to see the ginning process.” said Janet Reed, Cotton Incorporated’s associate director of environmental science.
Pointing out that growers are precise in their application of water and their use of energy and chemicals, Ms. Reed said Cotton Incorporated gets phone calls from retailers and brands who are trying to understand exactly what sustainability is.
“Right now it’s all about measuring sustainability. But before you can measure you have to identify and develop the metrics, in other words, what do you measure and how do you measure it. Measuring environmental impact is often called life cycle assessment and just as farming practices have advanced, so have life cycle assessment methodologies. Brands, retailers and in some case consumers are understanding or have at least heard of “life cycle analysis” or “cradle to grave.”
Cotton Incorporated’s goal is to provide scientifically grounded research and data for those who want to understand the inputs and the emissions associated with cotton production and manufacturing. For example, how much greenhouse gas emissions are associated with x, y and z. “The trend is toward greater accuracy and transparency and some brands and retailers are developing their own tools to measure their product’s environmental impact. But a truly meaningful and accurate life cycle assessment takes into account all the diverse and often complex parameters of a situation, particularly in global cotton production. When you start talking about soil types, regions and different cultural practices and climate, these things need to be considered and accounted for,” said Ms. Reed.
A,B,C’s Of Sustainability
Consumers may be driving sustainability efforts in the U.S., but nonwovens producers agree that consumers still want more information about sustainability.
“Consumers want to be sustainable but sometimes they don’t know what that really means,” Ahlstrom’s Dr. Dorsey said, adding, “Third party certifications like EPA’s Design for Environment and the USDA’s BIOPreferred Program help U.S. consumers understand what is sustainable as opposed to just “green washing. These labels help consumers understand that the products are designed for the environment.”
Educating employees about sustainability is on many producers’ radar. SCA is reviewing its sustainability strategy and the review is slated to be completed in 2011. “Strong profiling and positioning in sustainability for the SCA corporate brand as well as for SCA’s product brands was initiated and will continue in the years to come,” said Ms. Strandqvist.
So what does the future of nonwovens in sustainability look like?
Mr. Hrinko believes that the future involves working more closely with the market. “We will continue to innovate our fibers to ensure that our downstream partners are able to process them in various technologies at greater line speeds as well as with lighter basis weights. Convertors are running their lines at higher speeds and are using more active ingredients as well as power cleaners. Lenzing Viscose and Tencel need to be able to deliver these various additives, while being strong and durable to promote efficiency and efficacy,” he said.
New areas of interest are transparency in the origin of the raw materials, the source of energy used, as well as assessing the life cycle of the product, said Mr. Hrinko, adding, “In order to be a valued partner, we need to be close to our customers, geographically, as well as in tune with their present and future needs.”
Barnhardt’s Mr. Hargrove believes the demand for products made of cotton will grow. “While products made from cotton have always been sustainable, the knowledge for the consumer that they are benefiting our environment by utilizing cotton products will continue to grow the demand for cotton. As the consumer becomes more knowledgeable about sustainable products, the role cotton plays will continue to grow,” he said.
Emphasizing that retailers have led the sustainability initiative and driven it back down the supply chain in the U.S. market, Mr. Hargrove said, “The recognition that more and more disposable products are being used by the American consumer has led to more products going to landfills. What happens to the waste in the landfill then becomes the question. As most nonwoven cotton products decompose in 30 days or less in landfills, cotton again competes favorably against other fibers that are manmade or artificial. Cotton is renewable annually with each crop year as opposed to other fibers such as viscose that require reforestation efforts that may require 15 years.”
Dr. Dorsey predicted that companies who have been offering green alternatives to their existing products, will try to make all of their products greener. She also envisions that there will be more consumer products made with recycled polymer fibers. “There is a lot of research being done in new biopolymers—cellulose being the oldest one of them. We are moving from an oil-based to a sugar-based economy, which is why we see more interest in products made from PLA as well as traditional polymers (PP, PE, PET) now being made using renewable raw materials. Additionally, we foresee an increase of products with recycled content. We are used to paper products with recycled content, but we see more and more consumer products, which contain recycled polymer fiber. There’s going to be more of an investment towards recycled products in North America. We’re seeing a lot of increased interest in recycled polymer fiber from post consumer bottles.”
Mr. Gary predicts that along with cotton, PLA, soy resin and other biobased plastics will be increasingly used for nonwoven goods. “T.J. Beall Company is dedicated to offering the most sustainable natural raw material available to the nonwovens industry. We have seen genuine interest from the industry in using more environmentally-friendly fibers to manufacture their nonwoven fabrics and are confident that sustainability is becoming a mainstay for the industry,” he said.
Mr. Eldridge said Rockline is working on a system for evaluating the environmental impact of various materials. “We’re beginning to look at all of the raw materials we are using and investigating how we can improve our environmental impact. You will continue to see innovations in sustainability from Rockline,” said Mr. Eldridge.
K-C’s Ms. Tylinski said research and development into more environmentally-friendly diaper offerings continues to be a priority. “We are focusing on including more natural/renewable materials, reducing our manufacturing footprint (emissions, waste, energy use, etc.) and reducing our material usage,” she said.
Ms. Strandqvist envisions sustainability will be the buzzword in China. “There is a general customer demand for sustainable products but maybe most significantly in the tissue sector. The U.K., Germany, the Nordic countries and the U.S. are markets where sustainability is high on the agenda, but a sustainability research conducted by SCA in December 2010 shows that sustainability is an emerging trend among Chinese consumers,” she said.
Expect Cotton Incorporated’s global LCI project, launched in January 2010 to be completed by the end of March 2011. “Our mission with this project is to develop a life cycle inventory for cotton production and manufacturing that can be used by companies to help improve their cotton sustainability efforts. It’s our intention to provide the most up-to-date cotton data to the life cycle analysis community so that companies can better evaluate marketing claims about other fibers relative to cotton. The data will account for all of the inputs and outputs, including water, energy and chemicals related to cotton production in the U.S., China and India and textile manufacturing in India, China, Turkey and Latin America” said Ms. Reed.
While Mr. Davies believes that the downguaging trend will continue, he said,“We are approaching diminishing returns on further reductions. I think that we will see adoption of biopolymers for nonwovens production and packaging occurring at a faster rate than further downgauging.”
Mr. Vanderheyden foresees communication between all members of the supply chain. "We continue to look at the raw materials we use and find more sustainable opportunities in terms of those raw materials. There will continue to be developments on that front. In the end you still have to make a product that the consumer finds meets their needs. We’re examining materials that come from renewable plant-based sources as well as recycled content from other packaging. We’ve worked with our suppliers in many cases to order materials in sizing that meets up with their equipment that allows them to reduce their waste. One future trend is suppliers and customers and their suppliers and their customers—throughout the whole supplier chain, people are starting to talk to teach other to find ways to make the whole supply chain more sustainable.”
Ms. Korselt echoed Mr. Vanderheyden’s sentiments about the importance of collaboration. “As sustainability continues to evolve, Bostik is active in the market and collaborating across the supply chain to further understand and seek new approaches to sustainable developments. In order to achieve true, balanced sustainability, Bostik continues to dialogue and collaborate with stakeholders throughout the supply chain.”
Sandler’s Dr. Hornfeck is thinking along the same lines. “Sustainability will continue to be a vital part of our company philosophy and it will most likely grow in importance for the nonwovens industry. Raw material manufacturers will continue to support efforts to produce more environmentally-friendly products through fibers made from natural resources, for example PLA. Through the certification according to FSC and PEFC we can contribute to ensuring sustainable practices not only in our own company but along the entire supply chain.”
Stating that renewable energy and research to develop the next generation bio-energy is ongoing in its newly created SCA Energy business, Ms. Strandqvist summed up the future for the nonwovens industry best when she said, “Sustainability is a megatrend and it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. No company with the ambition of being successful can ignore that fact. Corporate sustainability is evolving into a license to operate for companies but to be truly successful you need to show excellence.” ❖