Prior to the emergence of the Coronavirus, wet wipes were one of the key products expected to be included in the Single Use Plastics legislation in Europe, meaning that wipes containing certain types of plastics would face certain requirements in terms of labeling and disposal. While the jury is still out on exactly which types of materials will be included, formulators of wipes agree that while it is possible to make a plastic-free baby wipe or personal care product, it would be much more difficult to make hard surface disinfectant wipes, like Clorox wipes, plastic-free. Therefore, raw material providers are now looking at ways to make plastic “greener” or more recyclable to balance these challenges.
That’s not to say, that cotton does not continue have a place in the nonwovens industry. Hygiene manufacturers are increasingly relying on the fiber to not only offer a more sustainable solution but also to incorporate benefits like increased absorbency, hypoallergenic and softness into their products while also offering a unique marketing message.
“Cotton has clothed people around the world for thousands of years and continues today. When asked what comes to mind when they think of cotton, consumers consistently state, ‘soft, comfortable, natural, sustainable,’” says Jan O’Regan, director of nonwovens marketing at Cotton Incorporated. “Companies around the word are seeking to raise their sustainability profiles by developing products made from natural fibers like cotton.”
Corman’s Organyc brand continues to focus on the appeal of cotton. In a recent redesign of its Organyc light incontinence line, the team designed a new line of light incontinence pads and liners that use only certified organic cotton on the topsheet and a cotton-balanced absorbent core that has a mix of cotton and superabsorbents to pull wetness away and maintain a dry feeling.
The new line is proven to resolve and protect against skin sensitivities, is dermatologically tested, free of wood pulp, fumes or perfumes and has GOT Certified odor control. The line comes in Ultra-Thin Liners, Moderate Pads, Maximum Pads and Ultimate Pads.
Lawson Gary, CEO of cotton supplier T.J. Beall, reports his company has several active R&D projects underway with multiple biobased fiber partners to develop new generations of low cost, highly-functional substrates for wipes and hygiene components. “Additionally, we are working with exotic fibers, such as raw hemp and kapok, to make these fibers readily usable on modern carded lines by opening and blending with TruCotton. The raw hemp fibers add strength and many marketing opportunities to the blend and the kapok adds incredible softness, as well as also being hydrophobic.”
TruCotton is T.J. Beall’s line of unbleached cotton fibers, which are white in appearance to not conflict with whiteness specifications required by downstream users in the personal care industry.
The baby diaper market is another market in which cotton is growing in share. In diapers, its value is recognized on topsheets for its compatibility with even the most sensitive skin, absorbency and ability to channel fluids to the ADL and, in it’s natural state for its hydrophobicity. In backsheets, cotton brings a soft, natural touch as well as biodegradability properties. However, it is wipes, due to the single use plastics initiative, where cotton is seeing the most interest. From a performance perspective, cotton in its purified form is highly absorbent. Better still it has the best liquid retention measurements which means the top wipes are not dry, nor are the ones at the bottom swimming in the wet wipe liquid.
Ginny Casstevens, sales director, nonwovens at cotton manufacturer Barnhardt Manufacturing agrees that cotton could be a solution to the plastics mandate but capacity would need to increase. “There are only a few nonwovens manufacturers who can process 100% cotton,” she says. “A lot can handle it in blends and that is a start,” she says.
With wipes designated as a Top 10 product on the ED SUP directive, there is an immediate, industry-wide need to replace synthetics. Interest and use of cotton is accelerating rapidly. O’Regan says, “Here’s why. In pulp/synthetic wipes, pulp provides absorbency and synthetic provides softness and strength.”
Asad Ali, marketing manager of Pakistan-based cotton supplier Ihsan Sons, also predicts the use of cotton in nonwovens applications will increase due to the SUP directive in the EU and U.S. “However, manufacturers are also keen on finding other alternatives i.e. plant based cellulosic fibers,” he says. “Bamboo fibers, pulp and cellulose blends, etc. – mainly due to the cost factor, and to create unique selling proposition for their consumers,” he says. “Cotton can easily replace less sustainable materials in some of the applications such as feminine care and personal care products, however, other applications such as industrial wipes, PPE require material strength that cotton cannot match unfortunately.”
In view of the current situation, Ihsan Sons has developed anti-bacterial wipes from cotton that will provide ultimate protection to the consumer against all types of germs and viruses with the comfort and safety of cotton. Anti-bacterial wet wipes demand will increase considerably in the near future, therefore, Ihsan Sons has responded with the changing industry demand.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ihsan has been using its cotton-based spunlaced nonwovens to make non-surgical masks for local consumption. The company is already working on making the masks more effective by the application of an antibacterial agent on the fabric—which will enhance usefulness in containment of the virus.
ExxonMobil Responds to Covid-19 Crisis
Polypropylene has been an industry standard for the production of nonwoven fabrics used in hygiene and medical products since the first meltblown pilot line was established at ExxonMobil’s research facilities in 1965. In the past few months, a massive influx of meltblown lines, driven by demand for face masks, has been announced, which will boost demand for the material globally.
In response to this demand, in April ExxonMobil announced it was increasing production of critical raw materials for masks, gowns and hand sanitizer used by medical professionals and first responders leading the efforts to combat the global Covid-19 pandemic. This included increasing its capability to manufacture specialized polypropylene, used in medical masks and gowns, by about 1000 tons per month, which is enough to enable production of up to 200 million medical masks or 20 million gowns.
“We’re increasing our manufacturing capabilities to meet this critical need to help keep doctors, nurses and first responders healthy and safe,” says Karen McKee, president of ExxonMobil Chemical Company. “Our team has been working around the clock, applying our engineering and technical know-how and working with our customers to make this happen. We’re committed to doing our part to support the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The additional polypropylene is being made at sites in Baytown, TX; Baton Rouge, LA; and Singapore and will help meet high demand for other critical hygiene and health care items.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil continues to be a leader in the development of materials and applications for both meltblown and spunbond nonwovens, supplying ExxonMobil PP; Achieve Advanced PP; Vistamaxx performance polymers; Exceed XP, Exceed and Enable performance PE polymers; and adhesive materials to the value chain.
The production of nonwoven fabrics requires incredibly specialized machinery and skilled operators which, combined with high-quality ExxonMobil PP, Achieve Advanced PP and Vistamaxx performance polymers, optimizes speed of production and nonwovens performance. Spunbond nonwovens are used for the outer layers of a variety of medical masks as they are breathable and have the strength to protect the inner layer by maintaining the integrity of the mask. Meltblown nonwovens are used in the inner layer because they provide an effective barrier to liquids and particulates, while being breathable.
Achieve Advanced PP is used to create comfortable and leak-proof hygiene products by enabling new nonwoven designs with outstanding barrier properties and high fabric strength.
The balance of strength and softness can be tailored to meet specific application needs by blending different grades of Achieve Advanced PP. Applications include diapers and training pants, wipes, adult incontinence products, and feminine care products. High melt flow rate and narrow molecular weight distribution allows efficient fabric processing on existing equipment. A broad operating window provides converters with greater operational flexibility and reliability.
ExxonMobil PP3155E5 is well-suited for the production of spunbond nonwovens because it combines high and consistent quality with high-speed spinnability.
Meanwhile, in early May, ExxonMobil announced it had taken part in an initiative by the Nonwovens Institute (NWI), a long-standing partner since 2008, which was looking for polymers to fabricate specialty nonwoven fabrics used for personal protective equipment (PPE). NWI is supplying the spunbond and meltblown nonwoven fabrics to manufacturers of medical masks, helping essential frontline medical workers get the PPE they need to stay protected against Covid-19.
The company is also supporting development of innovative new products to help in the pandemic response. Working with the Global Center for Medical Innovation, ExxonMobil earlier in April announced multi-sector and joint-development projects to rapidly redesign and manufacture reusable personal protection equipment, such as face shields and masks, for health care workers.
As part of that effort, ExxonMobil is applying its deep knowledge and experience with polymer-based technologies, in combination with the center, to facilitate development and expedite third-party production of safety equipment that can be sterilized and worn multiple times.
The center is awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a new face mask design, which features a replaceable cartridge system that includes a filtration fabric. When approved, production will begin immediately and could produce as many as 40,000 ready-to-use masks and filter cartridges per hour.
In China, ExxonMobil and its partners supported the effort, not just in supplying PP polymers for the nonwoven fabric for making masks but also Vistamaxx performance polymers for making the elastic ear loops for the masks. To ensure the supply of raw materials for Shandong Hengpeng (Rongtai new material), ExxonMobil quickly dispatched a large quantity of Vistamaxx performance polymers from its warehouses in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Singapore for the production of the elastic ear loops.
As a result, Daddybaby and other mask makers in China were able to ramp up the production of masks to meet the demand and help mitigate the spread of the virus.
Sateri Acquires Chinese Viscose Maker
Earlier this year, Sateri acquired Jiangsu Xiangsheng Viscose Fiber, an operator of a viscose mill with annual production capacity of about 250,000 metric tons. With this acquisition, Sateri operates four viscose mills in China, making it the world’s largest viscose producer with a total annual production capacity of 1.1 million metric tons.
Situated in Suqian City in Jiangsu Province, Xiangsheng had ceased operation for more than nine months after being heavily burdened by debt since November 2017. In August 2018, Sateri signed an agreement to lease Xiangsheng from the local authorities amidst the mill’s restructuring efforts.
Leveraging its experience and advanced technological expertise in viscose production, Sateri invested RMB 500 million (about $75 million) during the lease period to revive and upgrade the mill, significantly improving its productivity, product quality, environmental and health and safety standards. The successful resumption of Xiangsheng’s operations has led to the creation of more than 1,500 jobs within the local community, contributing to the prosperity and stability of Suqian City.
Tey Wei Lin, CEO of Sateri, says. “This acquisition will enable Sateri to bring its high-quality viscose to more customers, especially in the northern China market and work together with our downstream partners to accelerate the sustainable development of Suqian City and its surrounding areas. On completion of the acquisition, Xiangsheng’s mill will be renamed Sateri (Jiangsu) Fiber Co., Ltd., and will join Sateri’s world-leading viscose production network, including Sateri Fujian, Sateri Jiangxi and Sateri Jiujiang, enhancing the efficient delivery of high-quality products to our customers.”
Kelheim Fiber Effective in Tampons
Kelheim’s premium tampon fibre Galaxy, which has already been proven effective in sanitary pads, can substitute up to 70% of the synthetics in ADL (Acquisition-Distribution-Layers) in feminine hygiene pads. The amount of feminine hygiene waste is enormous—and often the time it takes for these products to degrade is hundreds of years longer than the lifespan of the woman who used it, because the synthetic components are not biodegradable. Changing consumer behavior drives the need for environmentally friendly yet safe alternatives.
The viscose hygiene fibers from Kelheim offer significant ecologic advantages: they are made from cellulose, which means they are based on renewable wood and they are fully biodegradable. These fibers are manufactured exclusively in Germany, in one of the most environmentally friendly plants worldwide.
Galaxy in sanitary pads offers not only a benefit for the environment. Due to its excellent wicking and absorption capacity it conducts liquids quickly and efficiently away from the body and leaves a pleasant feeling on the skin – in other words, it does exactly what the ADL layer is made for. In addition, Galaxy helps to distribute the liquid evenly in the absorbent core enhancing so the overall performance of the pad.
In comparison to other sustainable and conventional (synthetic) materials Galaxy excels by: faster acquisition, lower rewetting and enhanced distribution, according to the company.
“Plastic must disappear from these single-use products. The substitution of single synthetic components in sanitary pads is the first step,” says Dominik Mayer from the Bavarian fiber expert’s R&D team. “Down the road we want to offer a completely bio-based solution for sanitary pads and for various other hygiene applications.
“Our advantage—besides the functionality of our patented Galaxy fiber: Kelheim Fibres has been a renowned partner of the hygiene industry for decades; our production fulfils highest hygiene requirements. We offer our customers fibers that are ideally suited for the specific needs of their products and their processes.”
NatureWorks Donates Ingeo Resin to NWI
As the world faces a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers confronting the Covid-19 crisis, a long-standing partnership between NatureWorks and the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at North Carolina State University (NC State) has resulted in a new spunbond nonwoven technology enabling the production of at least 10 million additional N95 surgical masks. NWI has converted its research and training pilot production line to be able to produce face mask materials, and NatureWorks has donated the Ingeo resin needed to produce the spunbond material.
“Donating the Ingeo needed for this application was an easy decision,” says Rich Altice, president and CEO of NatureWorks. “We wanted to support NWI, our long-time partner, as they create devices that will protect the healthcare workers who will take care of us, our families, our colleagues, and our communities in this crisis.”
Typical N95 respirators and surgical masks are a multi-layer structure of one or two spunbond nonwoven layers that provide mask shape and protect the inner filtration layer. Those layers are combined with an electrostatically charged layer of meltblown nonwoven material which serves as the filtration layer capturing microscopic unwanted particles such as viruses and bacteria. The charge is what boosts the meltblown’s filtering capabilities, but it also means that the masks cannot be reused since the charge can be lost during the cleaning process.
“Because of the Covid-19 crisis, we took the spunbond technology and created a new generation of unique filters that have excellent filtering capability without needing to be charged, meaning they can potentially be reused after cleaning with peroxide, or an alcohol solution,” says Behnam Pourdeyhimi, executive director of NWI, Wilson College of Textiles associate dean for industry research and extension, and William A. Klopman distinguished professor. “Because these materials are also strong, they can be cut and sewn by traditional techniques.”
The new nonwoven fabric is a bicomponent fiber made of Ingeo biopolymer (PLA) and polypropylene (PP), providing significant strength and bulk with equal effectiveness in filtration. Additionally, Ingeo improves the productivity of the spunbond process by at least 30%. Leveraging these benefits, NWI’s pilot line can produce enough material to make 2 million masks per week.
“Typically, one meter of spunbond material provides enough for about 20 to 25 masks when using the current designs,” Pourdeyhimi says. “One of the NWI’s production lines started producing 2000 meters of spunbond material per hour, with the potential to create some 20,000 meters of spunbond material in a day.”
NWI currently has an agreement to provide large amounts of spunbond nonwoven material to several key partners, which will make masks at their manufacturing facilities. They plan to provide the new masks to local communities in need. NC State has also ordered machines that will allow NWI to make surgical masks in its Centennial Campus facilities. Those machines should arrive in the next month.
“NWI is known to be the global leader in nonwovens innovation, creating high tech fibers across applications,” says Robert Green, vice president of Performance Polymers at NatureWorks. “Their development of this spunbond structure has come to fruition at a critical time when high performance nonwovens are needed to meet the urgent need for PPE by medical professionals during this pandemic.”