The New Generation of Dispersible Technology

By Karen McIntyre, Senior Editor | March 26, 2014

Today’s new wipes products are looking to achieve higher levels of dispersibility to meet consumer and industry demands.

The market for flushable wipes has undergone a transformation as problems with sewage systems—although not necessarily caused by wipes—have painted a negative picture of wipes. Due to initiatives led by nonwovens organizations INDA in North America and EDANA in Europe, wipes now need to pass third-party testing that proves a product will disperse during the flushing process before it can be marked as flushable.

“The global market for flushable wipes is growing at a rate faster than for most other wipe products and nonwovens in general. For nonwovens which pass the INDA/EDANA GD3 (Guidance Document) for Flushability Assessment and Code of Practice, there are a number of market segments where flushability could prove an attractive opportunity,” says Alistair Brown, sales and marketing director, Suominen Nonwovens.

The world’s largest producer of nonwovens for wipe applications, in March Suominen announced its Hydraspun dispersible substrate had passed its third edition flushability test protocol under the latest round of guidelines issued by INDA and EDANA. “Since the late 1990s, when Hydraspun Dispersible products were invented, improved dispersibility of flushable wipes has been very high on Suominen’s innovation agenda,” says Kyra Dorsey, product manager. “Our knowledge of fiber science, understanding the expectations of the wastewater industry as well as being a partner in our customers’ successes are the building blocks which allow Suominen to lead the market and continuously improve its Hydraspun Dispersible products.”

Suominen is also stepping up investment in Hydraspun. Already underway with an expansion of the technology in the U.S., Suominen announced in March it was adding to the technology in Europe at its Ställden plant. All told the company is increasing capacity of Hydraspun 25%.

Suominen is not the only nonwovens manufacturer stepping up research and development efforts. “Our suppliers are progressive in their outlook on the flushable market and are constantly evolving their technology to improve dispersibility,” says Donna Rippin, category director for personal care marketing at Sheboygan, WI-based Rockline Industries. “Both Rockline and our substrate suppliers share a common interest in protection of the environment and constantly strive for greater sustainability—this drives flushability technology to achieve higher levels of dispersibility. In addition, consumers grow ever more savvy about the impact of consumable products on our planet.”

These efforts have changed the composition of many flushable wipes. Earlier generations of products deemed flushable, like moist toilet tissue, were determined to be flushable because of their size and ability to pass through a septic system but newer generations, subject to testing, have to be truly dispersible based on their composition.

“I think we will see some products disappear from the store shelves,” says Tobias Schäfer of machinery supplier Andritz. “A lot of products will not be able to pass the criteria needed to be labeled flushable according to the latest EDANA/INDA guidelines.”

Nonwovens made with wetlaid/hydroentangled process (wetlace) are leading the way in the development of flushable wet wipes, in particular moist toilet tissue. Andritz technology uses a blend of fibers, always containing pulp plus short cut staple fibers that are about a quarter the length of fibers used in standard spunlace. These shorter fibers offer stability but still disentangle during flush. While pulp does not offer any dimensional stability it adds other attributes like absorbency and biodegradability.

Pulp is added to the wetlace product in varying percentages depending on the needs of the final wipe product. “There is more pulp in flushable wipes, but the problem is pulp offers no wet strength at all,” Schäfer says. “If you compare a standard spunlace with the flushable product, spunlace is normally not flushable but it has the advantages of a good textile appearance, bulkiness and strength. The longer fibers entangle usually better but the product will not breakdown.”

Kimberly-Clark’s airlaid pulp/binder technology, which is used by its external businesses, Suominen’s Hyrdraspun made through a wetlaid-spunlace-thermal bonding products, and Georgia-Pacific/Buckeye’s Airspun non-triggered airlaid nonwovens are the three main substrates used within the wipes market but more technologies are emerging as interest in flushability is expanding.

Last year, Trützschler, a maker of hydrotentanglement lines, and paper specialist Voith Paper developed a wet-in-wet  process similar to the Ahlstrom/Suominen approach but without the use of bicomponent fibers for the flushable wipes market. “By carefully choosing raw materials and machine settings, we succeeded in producing nonwoven materials with the desired wet strength,” says Jutta Stehr, marketing manager, Trützchler. “So the unfinished nonwoven only contains fibers. Moreover, these fibers are 100% biodegradable. A high percentage of pulp delivers disintegration, the small amount of regenerated wood cellulosic fibers ensures the wet strength. Our product is the first material which disintegrates in water, is 100% biodegradable, uses low/moderately priced raw materials, has the required wet strength and is drapable and soft.”

From a machinery standpoint, the process relies on Voith’s HydroFormer for web formation and the Trützschler Nonwovens’ AquaJet for web bonding.

In late 2013, the companies announced the technology had passed INDA/EDANA flushability which will help it penetrate the flushable wipes category. Passing these standards prove to the industry that this product is safe to flush.

“Developing standards in this field will help wipe producers, consumers and sewage treatment plants,” Stehr says. “Market success crucially depends on consumer confidence. With the new guidelines only truly flushable wipes will pass the INDA/EDANA test series, all other products must be marked with the do-not-flush sign and will vanish from the market I presume.”

New Wipes Technology

According to Rippin, the flushable wipes category has historically been somewhat synonymous with “moist toilet tissue” (MTT) although other product categories are beginning to move toward dispersible substrates such as feminine care and incontinence wipes. These three categories have combined sales of $500 million in the U.S., growing at a healthy rate of 5-10%. Moist toilet tissue dominates, representing $400 million in sales.

The key branded competitors in this space are Procter & Gamble’s Charmin moist toilet tissue (its Always feminine care wipes are made from non-dispersible spunlace material), and Kimberly Clark’s Cottonelle and Scotts wet tissue. Within moist toilet tissue, the Cottonelle brand, which is scheduled to be upgraded in 2014, according to Kimberly-Clark, comprises 65% of the market making it the dollar share leader.  Private label is the share leader in unit sales (40%) and has the no. 2  spot in dollar share. 

Products come in a nice range of options for the consumer:  tubs, refill packs, and large “club box” sizes, and the emergence of more options in dispersable technology has helped grow this category into new areas. “This is the case with fem care wipes,” Rippin says. “Studies have found that consumers flush them anyway. Prevailing spunlace substrate is not flushable, and if they don’t flush them, they would like to have the ability to flush them.”

Rockline offers a full range of national brand equivalent moist toilet tissue wipes including a “pop-up” product packaged in tubs, refill zipper bags, refill/travel soft packs, singles sachets and club boxes.  “All of Rockline’s products use a unique dispersible substrate that allows our products to be safely flushed, provided the consumer has a properly maintained household system,” Rippin explains.

Rockline also offers a dispersible version of its feminine wipes which are comparable to P&G’s Always products.

Also expanding its scope in the flushable segment is SCA. The Sweden-based hygiene products manufacturer announced in September 2012 that its Tena flushable wash cloths were certified as flushable. The product, which is 99% biodegradable in addition to being flushable continues to be an important part of the company’s growth strategy.

“These wipes are the only adult-sized product in the category to carry NSF Flushable Product Certification,” says Jessica Lan, skin care brand manager, personal care, North America for SCA. “Obtaining this certification was important to Tena to help validate the high quality of our products and continue SCA’s tradition of innovation and commitment to environmental responsibility. They also feature a 3-in-1 moisturizing formula and are pH balanced to promote skin integrity and skin health. Simply put, Tena Flushable Washcloths are easier on the environment, better for residents and smarter for business.”

Tena, a global leader in adult incontinence is one of SCA’s strongest brands, and also includes personal care wipes and other skin care products that improve lives for customers and consumers. According to Lan, the company has numerous ongoing projects and recently launched several interesting products. “For example, last year Tena released an intimate personal care wipe in France that was very successful. The brand also released the TENA Wet Wash Glove in Europe, which combines comfort and convenience for daily full body cleansing without soap and water,” she says.

What Not To Flush

A big part of industry efforts have centered on on educating consumers what not to flush. Analyses of sewage clogs have shown that flushable wipes only comprise under 10% of the problem but they are receiving a big percentage of the blame. In fact, it is products that should absolutely not be flushed—baby wipes, tissues, napkins and paper towels—that account for the bulk of the problem.

To combat this, the INDA/EDANA flushability task force created a “Do Not Flush” logo to warn consumers not to put these items down the toilet. The logo is a part of an updated Code of Practices within the guidelines. These practices include clearer labeling guidelines that will keep government agencies from blaming the wipes industry for clogging problems.

“There is a potential freight train coming down the tracks targeting all manufacturers and marketers of nonwoven wipe substrates, the converters they sell to, and the wipes marketers who buy from the converters,” says Dave Rousse, president of INDA in describing the legislative challenge facing the industry. “The wastewater treatment industry is blaming the nonwoven wipes industry for the clogging of pumps in their wastewater systems.”

Already,  several states including California, Maine and New Jersey have responded to clogging complaints from wastewater treatment system operators by drafting legislation—which varies by state—that would dictate what could be called “flushable” or how wipes should be labeled or both. Many of these efforts have been temporarily tabled in the wake of INDA and EDANA’s efforts. Rousse adds that  studies have shown that wipes that meet the guidelines are not the cause of clogs in pumping stations. Rather, paper towels and other items represent the highest volume of materials found when pumps are unclogged.  “We do know that baby wipes and some other personal care wipes, none of which were designed to be flushed, can often get flushed. These products need to display the Do Not Flush logo prescribed in our Code of Practice,” he says.

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