Spunlace or hydroentangled nonwovens in wipes consumed a projected total of 877,700 tons of material worldwide in 2020. This is up from 777,700 tons in 2019, according to the latest data from the Smithers’ market report – The Future of Global Nonwoven Wipes to 2025.
Total value (at constant prices) rose from $11.71 billion in 2019, to $13.08 billion in 2020. According to Smithers, the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic means that even if nonwovens wipes had previously been considered a discretionary purchase in household budgets, moving forward they will be considered essential. Smithers consequently forecasts future growth of 8.8% year-on-year (by volume). This will drive global consumption to 1.28 billion tonnes in 2025, with a value of $18.1 billion.
“The impact of Covid-19 has lessened competition among spunlaced producers in much the same way it has on other nonwoven technology platforms,” says David Price, partner, Price Hanna Consultants. “High demand for spunlaced nonwoven substrates among all wipe markets has existed since mid Q1 2020. This has been particularly true for disinfectant wipes but is also present for baby and personal care wipes.”
Price says that global spunlaced production lines have been operating at full capacity since the second quarter of 2020. “We expect full capacity utilization of spunlaced nonwoven assets through 2021 and possibly into the first half of 2022 due to the effects of Covid-19.”
Serkan Gogus, CEO of Mogul, a Turkish nonwovens manufacturer that produces parallel laid and crosslap spunlace, says the pandemic has caused a huge demand increase with spunlace, especially as usage of disinfectant wipes significantly increased. He believes the pandemic created some habit of using wet wipes and some of the demand will retain even after the pandemic is over.
“For some period, supply couldn’t meet demand,” he says, adding that the company is hearing significant capacities will come onstream in the near future. “We’ll end up with fierce competition in the coming years.”
Paul Harmon, vice presidewnt of product, HHS, Berry Global, says the current global spunlace market remains tight with demand for cleaning and healthcare substrate continuing to be strong. “We have seen several announcements over the past few months of investments by spunlace producers indicating confidence in the market,” he adds. “We have also seen extended equipment lead times from all of the major players. There is no question that Covid-19 has changed the market in the short to mid-term. We have seen strong evidence of consumer behavior changes indicating that increased use of disposable cleaning wipes has longevity.”
German nonwovens producer Sandler is also reporting increased demand for the materials that make wipes. “In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic the demand for wipes substrates has risen exponentially and it is likely to remain high,” says Carolin Weber, Sandler’s sales director Hygiene Products. “This is the case for wet wipes in general as well as for wipes for sanitizing and disinfection in particular. A lot of people have gotten into the habit of carrying disinfection wipes with them, as they are readily at hand in any situation.”
Sandler manufactures nonwovens for hygiene products and disinfection wipes at its headquarters in Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany, as well as at its U.S. site in Perry, GA. “In cooperation with customers around the globe, Sandler is thereby contributing to ensuring the constant availability of these products,” she adds.
In recent years, Weber says the spunlace market has been growing steadily, and it continues to do so in Europe as well as worldwide. “Spunlaced materials are used in a very versatile range of applications and competition in this market is vigorous.”
In common end-use markets such as baby care, cosmetics or cleaning, supply matches demand, however, in niche markets, demand still exceeds supply. “In addition, new fields of use are constantly emerging, providing further opportunities for growth,” she explains. “New players are entering the market on a regular basis, constantly changing the competitive landscape. Therefore, innovation and long-term partnerships with customers and suppliers are vital for growth.”
Fibertex Nonwovens, which is reporting healthy growth in recent years for its spunlace assets in North America, South America and Europe, has seen a major shift in the supply-and-demand dynamic for spunlace. “Notably there is a strong demand for domestic supply with a focus on supply chain assurance and quality and innovation as brands look to capture and protect marketshare in the evolving landscape,” says Jonathan Layer, business development manager Americas, Fibertex Nonwovens.
Last spring as the Covid-19 pandemic began spreading rapidly in the U.S., Fibertex added a shift to support growing demand for spunlace and is now supporting its customers with 24/7 staffing. Fibertex expedited its response to the surging demand by working extensive overtime and adding staffing to support increased spunlace capacity for life-saving products such as hard surface disinfecting wipes and face masks. The company also added needlepunch capacity, which will support the delivery of material for N95 masks.
In June, Fibertex was recognized for its North American response to Covid-19 by the U.S. Department of Commerce and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster. The visit included a tour of its current spunlace operations as well as a new needlepunch operation, which adds capacity to Fibertex’s two production lines Illinois.
Meanwhile, the commercialization of Berry Global’s third Spinlace line started up on schedule in late 2019, just in time to support the surge in demand driven by Covid-19. A $50 million investment, the new line located in Mooresville, NC, adds an incremental 17,000 metric tons of annual capacity to the marketplace. The asset is focused on wipes serving the healthcare, hygiene, household cleaning, foodservice and industrial markets.
“At Berry, our strategy is always to run as close to full as possible so that we can maximize our economies of scale and continue to service our customers,” says Harmon. “The pandemic has pressured the supply chain of all substrates used in cleaning or protection and we haven’t seen that demand decline at this point.”
Spinlace, a proprietary fabric from Berry, is created by entangling multiple layers of substrate, such as airlaid, pulp or spunmelt, to deliver a cloth-like feel with improved performance. Berry’s proprietary Apex technology, which imparts a 3D image on any fabric to change its appearance and improve aesthetics and function, can be used with Spinlace to customize or change attributes of the end product.
In Asia, Taiwanese nonwovens manufacturer KNH has witnessed significant increases in demand for anti-virus products such as wipes, surgical gowns and protective suits. As a result, the market remains in short supply of spunlace nonwovens. In response to the strong demand, especially for Asia, KNH is developing new production lines to supply more spunlace. “The demand will be met in 2021,” says Allen Huang, KNH global ODEM sales EVP, “however, we anticipate that after the pandemic, the supply of spunlace might exceed the demand.”
The demand for general wiping material is being met, Huang adds, therefore, KNH will target new areas for spunlace, including medical and technological applications. Therefore the company plans to make more investments in leading-edge spunlace equipment and material development in 2021. “The products will be more specific on beauty, medical and electronic wiping material, high-level protective coveralls, etc.,” he says.
The adoption of Europe’s Single Use Plastics Directive, which seeks to significantly reduce the amount of single use plastics (SUPs) going into European landfills and oceans, has become an area of concern for the nonwovens industry. For wet wipes, the biggest impact will be felt in labeling requirements that need to inform consumers about the appropriate disposal of the product and about the negative impacts of SUPs and littering on the environment. In response to the ruling, spunlace producers are anticipating growing demand for bio-based materials in the coming years, and they have been working diligently to offer more plastic-free solutions for wipes manufacturers.
In April, Spanish paper company Papel Aralar commissioned Voith and the nonwoven fabric expert Trützschler Nonwovens to deliver a new system for specialty paper production. The wetlaid-spunlace (WLS) line, PM 5, was developed as a joint project by both companies specifically for the wipes industry.
The special sustainable feature of a wetlaid machine ordered is that the adult and baby wet wipes it produces are completely plastic-free, flushable and biodegradable, a characteristic that conventional wet wipes do not have.
The WLS line, installed in late 2020, has already started delivering commercial orders. With the recent investment, Aralar now has two WLS state-of-the-art production lines with a total production capacity of 45,000 tons.
The decision to invest in this new line was driven by the forecast growth in demand for biodegradable substrates for wet wipe production. “This has to be put in the context of the imminent change in the regulatory framework for wet wipes made with plastic, with the EU Single-Use Plastic directive coming into force in 2021,” says Javier Falcón of Papel Aralar.
The focus of the new machine will be the production of paper for biodegradable, dispersible baby wipes, under the commercial brand Arababy. “A far bigger category than flushable wipes, baby wipes is a segment that will need to evolve from the current plastics-based paradigm towards sustainable materials,” Falcón says. “A failure to do so will set it at odds with an ever more informed customer base, most of which is about to discover, thanks to the new 2021 EU labeling regulations, that most baby wipes do in fact contain plastic.”
According to Falcón, the global pandemic has resulted in growth in the demand for standard, plastic-based spunlace material—mostly for the production of wet wipes—and in an expansion of the production capacity of this material, mostly in Asia. The supply of sustainable, biodegradable wetlaid-spunlace, however, is still more limited and focused on very few manufacturers. “Supply for this type of innovative material is expected to remain very tight over the coming years, as the transition from plastic-based wipes into biodegradable ones accelerates,” he says.
Furthermore, Papel Aralar doesn’t think the spunlace industry, in the current plastic-based paradigm that dominates the market, is a healthy business. Aralar has never added a plastic, binder or chemical to the formulation of its wipes substrate. It only uses cellulosic fibers for its wet wipe substrates. “Cellulose, unlike plastic, is made from a renewable source: wood. Wood is harvested commercially and sustainably,” he says. “Reforestation is intensive: the main pulp-supplying countries plant several new trees for each one used. Other materials like plastic fibers come from a non-renewable source that cannot be harvested. Cellulose is also biodegradable and compostable. In addition, all of the fiber used is forestry certified.
“The ongoing tide of public opinion and regulatory changes against plastic is a direct threat to the very survival of the industry in its existing form,” Falcón continues. “Only through a transition towards sustainable substrates can the spunlace industry survive and thrive. Aralar is part of that new paradigm and we see our future within the spunlace industry as a very promising one. “
Outside of raw materials, Falcón says the paper industry, in which Aralar is a long-established global player, is at the forefront in the use of sustainable and renewable energy sources. This includes production of electricity through its own 18-hectare dam with two waterfalls and three hydroelectric turbines.
As part of Sandler’s sustainability efforts, it uses about 30% renewable and recycled raw materials, among them raw materials from renewable sources, such as viscose, cotton or the lactic-acid-based polymer PLA for spunlaced nonwovens. “Together with our customers and partners we are continually testing new raw material options,” says Weber. “The spunlace technology offers the possibility to adapt the nonwoven’s raw material composition, while maintaining our established product functionality and quality, or with a view to bringing about desired properties. This has enabled us to take account of sustainability even in disposable products such as wipes.”
Sandler continuously looks into possibilities to increase sustainability in its products as well as its business practices. Some years ago, the company achieved a reduction in the basis weights of a new generation of wipes substrates, lowering material input while maintaining the nonwovens’ properties. Additionally, in terms of reducing the carbon footprint of its products, Sandler strives to lower energy consumption throughout all areas of the company. In production, this is achieved through an energy monitoring system at its production lines.
Gogus of Mogul says as in every business, sustainability is very critical, and with the EU single use plastics regulation it will be especially more critical.
Mogul tries to use natural and renewable raw materials to comply with demand, but such materials are much more expensive than current materials used. “And in a highly competitive environment, no one wants to pay more,” Gogus explains.
Mogul also enhances its environmental footprint through reducing the energy it uses and reusing the process water. It also recycles and uses the waste and trims it generates.
With regard to raw materials, cotton is considered a solution to the plastics mandate and is generating wide interest in the wipes market.
One of the specialists in this area is Pakistan-based cotton supplier Ihsan Sons. Asad Ali, marketing manager of Ihsan Sons, says the demand for 100% cotton spunlace has been gradually increasing, whereas on the supply side, the competition is getting stiffer as more players are entering the market and existing players are increasing capacities. “However, currently the supply is in excess to the demand,” he adds. “The market is still evolving and many companies are exploring ethical and sustainable R&D, therefore new opportunities will emerge. As new players are entering, existing manufacturers are improving their revenue streams by exploring new markets for the existing products.”
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ihsan developed a range of wet wipes as an extension to its existing product line of pure cotton dry wipes. “With the introduction of these wipes, we have acquired full proficiency and capability in private labeling and contract manufacturing of wet wipes,” says Ali.
The wipes are available in 100% cotton spunlace with various alcohol-free compositions for applications such as disinfectant/antibacterial wipes, baby wipes, cosmetic wipes and surface wipes.
“With the current Covid-19 threat, the wipes industry has become even more important for the growth of spunlace,” Ali says. “Eco-friendliness is becoming a key purchasing criterion for consumers along with convenience. Wipes and in particular anti-bacterial wipes will now become a part of day-to-day life. It is so important that these are manufactured from biodegradable materials and we can only see the demand for cotton spunlace growing. Major retailers and wipes producers have an ethical and social responsibility now to do the right thing, the technology and product is available, so there is no excuse!”
Another expert in cotton spunlace, Shenzhen, China-based Winner Medical Co.’s nonwovens are used for surgical gowns, isolation gowns, protective clothing, masks and other products. “[This] not only solves the shortage of raw materials but also makes a great attribution for the environment as it is biodegradable,” says Mandy Gu, manager of the PurCotton department of Winner Medical. “At the same time, the advantages of comfort and other advantages have been highly recognized by customers.”
According to Gu, the global outbreak of the pandemic has caused an explosive increase in the use of disinfection wipes, and the mass production of disinfectant wipes will continue to grow. “In the post-epidemic era in China, the amount of disinfectant wipes will decrease, but the amount of ordinary wipes and sanitary wipes has increased [more] than [before the] epidemic,” Gu explains. “On the one hand, due to the widespread use of disinfectant wipes during the epidemic, everyone learned about the efficacy and usage of wet wipes, which made everyone pay more attention to health and safety; on the other hand, after the epidemic, China added about 100 new spunlace production lines, these new hundreds of thousands of tons of production capacity have to be digested, [and] it will be a good material to consume as disposable wet wipes.”
While wipes continue to consume the lion’s share of spunlace, producers of the material have been exploring and expanding into other markets such as hygiene, medical, filtration and other fields in recent years.
Winner Medical has seen more of cotton spunlace nonwoven fabrics used in surgical gowns, protective clothing and masks. “Compared with spunbond and SMS materials, the cotton spunlace nonwoven fabric is softer and more breathable,” Gu says.
Winner’s cotton spunlace meets the performance requirements of surgical gowns, protective clothing and other epidemic prevention products for raw materials and solves the problem of raw material shortages and advantages such as comfort, Gu adds.
Ali of Ihsan Sons says that while the company’s local sales in Pakistan come from its range of wipes called Sateen Soft, its export sales are concentrated in the feminine hygiene sector. “The femcare market is increasingly adapting the 100% cotton spunlace as women are becoming more conscious about their health and ecological footprints of traditional period products,” he says. “Comfort, softness and hypoallergenicity are the primary drivers for women in feminine hygiene products, making 100% cotton spunlace nonwoven the right choice.”
More recently, Ihsan Sons has started an R&D project with a client for cotton spunlace to be used in the diaper market. Additionally, 100% cotton spunlace applications in beauty care products such as cosmetic rounds and face masks are gaining importance.
Outside of wipes, Sandler’s spunlace has been used for hygiene as well as in technical applications. “Having different technologies at our disposal also enables us to combine material properties to further enhance functionality,” says Weber.
In the technical sector, spunlaced nonwovens are applied as processing aids or cover nonwovens, which are applied in the automotive industry, among others.
Meanwhile, South Carolina-based nonwovens manufacturer Bondex Inc. produces spunlace for filtration and other specialty applications. Part of industrial filtration specialist Andrew Industries, the company expanded into hydroentangled spunlace products in 2016—a $20 million investment. The company’s range also includes flat and point bonded thermal nonwovens and various laminated and coated products.
The spunlace technology at Bondex is designed to produce filtration media for industrial applications. “The hydroentangling forces present in this process produce robust materials, which have smaller pore sizes than the needlefelt equivalent,” says Bondex president Brian Little. “The hydroentangled media demonstrates superior filtration efficiency performance as a result of the smaller pore sizes as compared to incumbent materials. When high efficiency filtration media is required for industrial applications, spunlace fabrics should be considered.”