The Future of Superabsorbents in Food Packaging: Nonwovens Powders or Fibers?

By Phil Mango , Phil Mango Consulting | October 4, 2011

The inclusion of superabsorbents has opened up doors for airlaid nonwovens in this market.

The beginning of the“nonwovens age” in food packaging is often defined as the year 2000, when both Stockhausen (with powders) and Technical Absorbents (with fibers) obtained U.S. FDA approval for their food grade superabsorbents.Although there were nonwovens used in food packaging before 2000, and there were and still are nonwovens without superabsorbents used in food packaging, both market size and potential grew exponentially from that date. In 2001, there were little or no superabsorbents or nonwovens used in food packaging; today more than one million pounds of superabsorbents are used in

The approval of superabsorbents in food packaging has led to great opportunities for airlaid in this category.
over 20,000 metric tons of nonwovens in food packaging!And, much of this is in North America and Western Europe. Huge untapped potential markets exist in Asia and other emerging market regions.

Back in 2000, “case ready” packages and“pre-padded trays” were lesser known entities; today, they are rapidly dominating the large developed markets and are known to the emerging markets.In 2000, small, local butchers and other meat packagers valued the versatility of food pads which could be cut to size on-site; today, large centralized packaging sites and the desire for safer, less handled food has led to a preference for sealed edge, pre-sized pads.In 2000, the ease of processing superabsorbent fibers and superbsorbent fiber containing food pads justified the approximately double price (over superabsorbent powders) commanded by these products; today, with meat prices under pressure, feed prices exploding and acrylic acid availability constrained, the future of superabsorbent fibers in food packaging is clouded.

Early Days
Almost immediately after superabsorbents were approved for food packaging use, airlaid nonwovens began developing products for this market. This made sense since by 2000, many airlaid producers had superabsorbent powder dosing equipment and synthetic fiber feeders already in place to address airlaid’s largest market, ultrathin feminine hygiene pads. A great deal of work in airlaid targeting baby diapers had already been completed.

Prior to 2000, many food pads were compositionally very similar to baby diapers (for example, Sealed Air, one of the largest pad producers, used formed fluff cores just like baby diapers).So, the very first nonwovens-containing superbasorbents were simply absorbent cores already commercial in ultrathin pads, merely substituting the food grade superabsorbent for the hygiene grade.But, just like for baby diapers, airlaid nonwovens with superabsorbent powders are still more expensive than formed fluff pulp with added superabsorbent; airlaid needed another advantage to crack this market.Replacing superabsorbent powders with superabsorbent fibers in the early 2000s added the flexibility of cutting a roll of nonwoven food pads to whatever size was needed at the food packaging site. Superabsorbent powder containing pads require a polyethlyene film/tissue “pouch” with sealed edges to contain the absorbent core.This flexibility, coupled with the reduced cost of not having to completely encase the core in polyethylene or tissue, offsets the cost of an airlaid nonwoven with superabsorbent fiber.The earliest airlaid food pads coupled food grade superabsorbent fibers with food grade bicomponent bonding fibers in an expensive thermal bond or multibond airlaid core.

While fem hy continues to be the largest market for airlaid, opportunities are increasing in food packaging and other applications.
Middle Ages
A combination of events in the mid 2000s changed the situation in food pads.First, the trend towards “case ready,” centrally packaged meats continued and accelerated.Packaging technology, like modified atmospheric packaging, increased the viable shelf life of packaged food, while large retailers, like Walmart, built large centralized processing plants to supply multiple locations.The need for cutting food pads on-site was eliminated. In fact, trays were now being supplied pre-padded, so sealed edge pads were no longer an issue.

Also, a new low cost type of airlaid, hydrogen bonded airlaid, was gaining market share. Interestingly enough, hy­dro­gen bonded airlaid was originally developed for baby diapers, reducing the complexity and cost of an airlaid core to compete with the incumbent formed fluff pulp/superbsorbent cores. When remaining cost issues and large installed diaper production capacity (for the old style, fluff-based cores), combined with baby comfort issues (hydrogen bonded airlaid cores were stiffer than formed fluff pulp) minimized the baby diaper market for hydrogen bonded airlaid, food pads filled the gap.

After all, installed production capacity for food pads did not have a long history of superabsorbent use (so efficiency and waste were issues with superabsorbents), food pads could not afford the intricate baby diaper structures to contain and enhance superabsorbents (topsheets, secondary topsheets, acquisition/dis­tri­bution layers, etc.), and, unlike babies, packaged meat didn’t object to stiffness of the core! This new product, hydrogen bonded airlaid without expensive bicomponent bonding fibers and without expensive food grade superabsorbent fibers but with more cost effective food grade superabsorbent powders, even when used in a polyethylene film/tissue sealed edge structure, offered lower cost and/or higher performance than either the multibonded airlaid with superabsorbent fibers or the formed fluff/superabsorbent powder cores.

End Game

As the world emerges from its worse recession in decades, many factors are improving.But most are not returning to pre-recession values.Global economies are growing, but neither GDP nor employment is returning to pre-recession levels.Raw materials and animal feed costs are beginning to retreat from historic highs, but even the most optimistic prognosticators are not calling for prices equal to pre-recessionary levels.And oil prices continue to defy logic, as decreasing demand appears to increase price!

The demand for packaged foods, especially meat, will be price sensitive for the foreseeable future.Increased safety requirements for packaged foods will continue to grow and affect demand, as well.Price sensitive, higher safety products require cost effective, high performance packaging.High performance, cost effective packaging will increasingly rely on superabsorbent containing nonwovens.

But, which superabsorbent product will best fit the needs of these nonwovens?

This future presents difficult challenges for nonwovens with superabsorbent fibers and significant opportunities to nonwovens with superabsorbent powders.Testing indicates that superbsorbent fibers still lag behind powders in performance (powders have about 10% higher absorbency, 15-20% higher retention and 15-35% higher absorbency under load), the cost of fibers is still about two times the price of powders, and both global acrylic acid and superabsorbent capacity are very tight.­­­

Then, there are still only a few food grade superabsorbent producers globally; Evonik has the most experience in this product area, producing food grade superabsorbent powder since 2000.There is currently only one food grade superabsorbent fiber producer, Technical Absorbents.

Finally, while there is almost two million metric tons globally of superabsorbent powder capacity, all food grade superabsorbent fiber producers have less than 5000 metric tons of capacity.

Performance, security of raw material supply, global capacity, product price; all of these factors favor powders over fiber.Barring dramatic technological or cost breakthroughs, it appears that superabsorbent fiber use in food packaging nonwovens will continue to decrease while superabsorbent powder usage and the nonwovens containing them will grow.

Glatfelter gains ground in airlaid
Nearly two years after entering the airlaid game through the acquisition of Concert Industries, Glatfelter reports strong progress in this business. Volumes grew a reported 18% in 2010 as a new airlaid line came onstream in Falkenhagen, Germany, and subsequently reached full capacity. At the same time, profitability has doubled as Glatfelter has made operating improvements across the business.

“We are very happy with the acquisition,” says Jonathan Bourget, vice president and general manager of Glatfelter Advanced Airlaid. “The improvements have been robust. In Canada, we brought more stability to the operations while in Germany, the improvements were more of an organizational nature. Both plants have demonstrated strong progress.”

The York, PA-based Glatfelter Group, a maker of specialty paper and wetlaid nonwovens, purchased airlaid maker Concert Industries—and its plants in Canada and Germany—in February 2010 for a reported $235 million. This division now operates as Glatfelter Advanced Airlaid Materials.

Even before the purchase, Concert’s sales were set to grow, thanks to a new German airlaid line that came onstream right before the acquisition, adding 18,000 tons of capacity to the operation.

Calling the line a “very solid performing line,” Bourget says his company’s success in getting this line onstream was largely attributable to the world class technical capabilities put in place by Concert Industries. “We were able to start this line and essentially fill it very rapidly and efficiently,” he adds.

With global capacity in the 84,000-ton range, Glatfelter is set to be the world’s largest airlaid producer by 2013 as the current leader, Buckeye Technologies, streamlines its business with the closure of its Vancouver plant.

As the future market leader, it is fitting that Glatfelter is also a leader in the largest market for airlaid globally—feminine hygiene—which represents about 65-70% of all airlaid sales in developed markets. While airlaid’s use in feminine hygiene applications is pretty mature, a migration from fluff pulp to airlaid cores does continue, at about 1% a year. Additionally, opportunities abound in adjacent markets, namely adult incontinence applications where active consumers and more sophisticated products make the use of airlaid necessary.

While growth opportunities remain strong, Concert has no immediate plans to add more airlaid lines to its operations.

Glatfelter is set to become the world’s largest maker of airlaid in the next couple of years.
Instead, the company will focus on continuous improvement of its existing lines to increase their capacity, and offer more added value solutions, particularly with it's proprietary festooning technology. To that effect, Glatfelter is now completing the installation of a new festooning line in its Canadian operations of Gatineau (Que). Other efforts will center on how to help its customers deal with the difficulties of passing rising raw material prices to retailers.

“Rapid changes in raw material prices has put another set of challenges and we have to realize that our customers are having even additional challenges putting through increases.” Bourget says. “This has forced us to focus on new material solutions that leverage our existing technology, and provide a lower cost platform to our customers, amidst higher raw material costs.”

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