Like vendors filling a crowded street bazaar with a cornucopia of rare and priceless items, natural and synthetic fiber suppliers have finetuned a vast array of fibers for nonwovens. Pressed by consumers and retailers to be ecofriendly and cost effective, producers have a wide choice of fibers for use in a host of applications. The selection includes renewable and compostable natural fibers from natural fiber suppliers as well as a plethora of sustainable choices from polyester and polypropylene producers.
The Fabric Of Our Lives
Cotton, one of the oldest and most well known natural fibers has been gaining a foothold in many nonwovens sectors, although this fiber has faced some pricing challenges in recent months as crop problems have escalated prices to above $2 per pound. Still, with a new crop cycle on the horizon, experts expect cotton to continue its expansion into nonwoven markets thanks to its many advantages including strength and absorbency as well as its strong environmental profile.
According to Janet O'Regan, director of strategic initiatives/global product supply chain for Cotton Incorporated, cotton is a natural fiber that is amenable to nonwovens technologies with the exception of melt spinning.
"Cotton can be blended with other synthetics and thermally bonded. Its natural absorbency and liquid retention make it superior to polyester and polypropylene in wipes. Cotton is a versatile fiber. It is hydrophobic and oliophilic. It was used last summer to clean up oil in the Gulf in booms and pads that absorbed oil. It can absorb 14 times its weight in commercial use and up to 80 times in a lab while still floating on the water. When raw cotton is hydroentangled, some of the natural oils and pectins are washed off resulting in a material that will absorb water as well as oil—all without special chemical treatments," she said.
Additionally, recycled cotton is finding new life as raw materials for nonwoven products ranging from wipes to building insulation and its status as an annually renewable and biodegradable material has made it attractive to companies looking for a green profile.
Finally, Ms. O'Regan said that consumers describe cotton as soft, comfortable, natural and absorbent. Their affection for cotton T-shirts, jeans and towels is transferred to other product categories like wipes, feminine hygiene items and diapers. "Cotton is a good choice for marketers because consumers know it. Marketers don't need to build awareness and educate the market about cotton. They simply need to tell the markets that there is cotton in a product," she said.
This has led to a trend of using cotton in nonwoven-based products that are close to the skin. Barnhardt Manufacturing offers UltraClean Comber—a byproduct of yarn-spinning—to the nonwovens market where it is finding use in fem care, baby wipes, swabs and medical balls.
"We are excited about the continued demand for new uses of our purified cotton despite the current high cost of cotton," said George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing. " We believe marketers of cotton containing products have realized the benefits cotton brings to their substrates and that the current unusually high cost of cotton is a temporary phenomena that will moderate over the coming 12 to18 months. " Beyond its traditional uses, cotton is finding new roles in a variety of wipes products, baby diaper back sheets and feminine pad front sheets thanks to consumers' recognition that cotton is safe, comfortable and soft next to the skin, according to Mr. Hargrove. "Certainly the fact that cotton is from nature and not synthetically derived is important to consumers. As bleached cotton has proven to biodegrade in landfill conditions in less than 30 days, disposability adds another benefit to the value of cotton. Cotton is an annual crop with yields increasing year over year with improved farming methods on a global scale," he said.
While cotton's green profile is already strong—thanks to an ability to 100% biodegrade—Barnhardt has been at the forefront of lessening its footprint even more significantly. "We have reduced our energy consumption by 8% and water consumption by 33% since 2007 per product output. Additionally we have reduced our GHG emissions by 6% since 2007 per product output. These amounts have been verified by an independent licensed body during an LCA study conducted in 2010," said Mr. Hargrove.
The Green Scene
While cotton is favored for its status as a natural fiber—as well as the green attributes that come with this status—synthetic fibers, like polypropylene or polyester, are valued for their dependability and flexibility. These attributes have allowed Trevira to expand its polyester fiber business into a number of specialty and niche markets, according to Günter Wittman, director of sales and marketing for polyester fiber manufacturer Trevira. "It is our role to offer customized products that offer a solution, whether it be technical or whatever," he said.
Two areas of particular interest to Trevira are the wallcovering market, where wetlaid nonwovens are experiencing strong growth, and in green areas where its partnership with Natureworks to develop PLA fibers is gaining steam.
In fact, it seems green is an issue in all corners of the nonwovens industry and as such raw material providers are coming up with new ways to appeal to this development. One of these ways is through the use of recycled fibers and raw material suppliers on both the natural and synthetic ends of the spectrum are increasing their capabilities in this area.
Last month, Leigh Fibers and Trans-Americas Textile Recycling Inc., two industry leaders with a combined 168 years of textile and fiber recycling experience formed a strategic partnership to increase the volume of post-consumer textiles saved from landfills.
"This alliance will create the most comprehensive fiber and textile recycling process in North America," said George Martin, executive vice president of marketing and sales for Leigh Fibers. "The combination of Leigh's reprocessing capabilities and capacity and Trans-Americas' recycling experience and logistical expertise gives customers access to a more complete closed-loop recycling system than ever before."
Trans-Americas works with retailers, municipalities and charitable organizations to recycle used clothing/post-consumer textile waste (PCTW). PCTW comprises 5% of U.S. landfill volume, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently only about 25% is recycled. Trans-Americas currently processes nearly 17 million pounds a year and expects that to grow through its strategic partnership with Leigh Fibers, whose facility in Wellford, SC has the capacity to reprocess one million pounds per day.
Meanwhile, DAK has been busy on the sustainability front. Last December, Clear Path Recycling, LLC., the PET recycling joint venture company established by Shaw Industries Group, Inc. and DAK Americas LLC, announced that it had completed the first phase of their PET recycling facility in Fayetteville, NC. The plant produces Recycled PET (RPET) flake from post-consumer PET bottles.
Shaw and DAK will be the primary users of the RPET Flake in their respective polyester based products including carpets, fibers and resins. The remaining product will be sold for merchant use. With the completion of Phase 1, this plant has the capability to recycle up to 160 million pounds of PET bottles per year, which will save over 550,000 cubic yards of landfill space yearly.
As companies like Leigh Fibers and DAK Americas ramp up their use of recycled materials, Wellman International's use of recycled polyester bottles is status quo for the 40-year-old Irish company. "We have always been sourcing our fibers from recycled materials but now we are just talking about it a little more," said product manager Celene Rafferty. "Sustainability has always been important to us, even before it was cool to do it." As it promotes it sustainability story, Wellman has also been broadening its scope beyond traditional commodity segments like bedding and pillows into hygiene and technical applications. "We have an extremely diverse product range and our fibers can go into anything from baby diapers to roofing felts to absorbent materials for oil spills," Ms. Rafferty explained."
As a veteran recycler, Wellman has the expertise necessary to create clean, effective material from old bottles, a claim that has been backed up by LCA studies and environmental certifications at the company. "We are a big recycler and we have two plants custom-made plants to do this," Ms. Rafferty explained. "This is not something that you can just dabble in. It truly takes some sound knowledge."
Another natural fiber, cellulose, made from wood pulp is gaining popularity in many nonwovens sectors, namely the disposable wipes market. A world leader in the production of manmade cellulose fibers, Lenzing is enjoying success in a wide range of applications including wipes, feminine hygiene, medical products and technical applications.
Elisabeth Stanger, global marketing director of Lenzing's Business Unit Nonwovens said much of this growth is driven by changing consumer needs as the entire value chain tries to optimize the synergy between performance and environmental sustainability. Lenzing Viscose and Tencel are tailored to provide the optimized performance requested by these customers. The main benefits are natural absorbency as well as advanced processability based on reliable fiber quality.
"As botanic fibers made from the raw material wood—Lenzing's Viscose and Tencel can biodegrade fully: nature returns to nature," she said. "Lenzing Viscose offers the purity and softness demanded by sensitive nonwovens applications. The new age fiber Tencel increases strength in a wet state. Tencel is characterized by a smooth and silky fiber surface which provides an ideal solution for skin friendly end uses." Consumers' desire for more information about a product's ingredients is a trend that is emerging. "More people are suffering from sensitive skin that reacts to harsh materials. The ingredients influence the quality and sustainability of a product. Currently the communication on wipes is often lacking clarity for retail and consumers," said Ms. Stanger.
The trend toward using fine fibers is also gaining momentum. "Lenzing is already cooperating with key partners along the supply chain to tailor finer fibers up to microfibers. The optimized solutions will increase performance at the same nonwoven weight on the one hand or support the production of lightweight fabrics without compromising quality on the other hand," said Ms. Stanger.
Lenzing's Viscose and Tencel brand have become well known in nonwovens as the industry's commitment to sustainability has soared. "Sustainability is more than a trend—it is here to stay. This clearly affects the choice of raw materials for nonwovens producers. Decisions will be clearly influenced by environmental and socio-cultural topics such as the need to feed the growing population or scarce resources such as oil or water. Lenzing fibers will help to fill this gap. Another aspect of sustainability is carbon footprint and local sourcing. As a global company Lenzing has production sites in Europe, Asia and the U.S. We offer short distances between fibers and the nonwovens industry," said Ms. Stanger.
Another viscose supplier benefiting from the sustainability drive is Birla Cellulose. The company's fibers, are made from wood pulp, the fibers have a 100% natural origin and are also 100% biodegradable. Sachin Malik, general manager, Birla Cellulose's International Marketing division said, "Birla Cellulose produces viscose for nonwovens on custom designed lines to meet all hygiene and regulatory requirements of customers. Customers are looking for innovation from us in order to help them reduce their costs and simultaneously improve the functionality of their products. In order to meet their needs, we are now working together with customers to adjust our product parameters as per their requirements. We are working to develop finer denier fibers to help customers reduce the basis weight of the fabrics and in turn reduce the costs. Our viscose fibers are suited for a variety of applications. Wiping products is the largest application of our fibers. Other important applications are medical products (gauzes, waddings and dressings), automotive, interlinings, filtration, flame retardant mattresses and Carbon Precursors." No stranger to the green movement, Mr. Malik said, "Our product is completely biodegradable and thus ideally suited for products that are being marketed on their sustainability credentials. We ensure that our plants and processes comply with all necessary regulations. Our plants have obtained numerous environment-related recognitions from local governments and neutral bodies. Further, we undertake various community initiatives to improve the lives of people living in the vicinity of our units."
Beyond cotton and viscose, the use of polylactic acid (PLA) is also gaining traction in nonwovens' green movement. NatureWorks, a polymer manufacturer makes Ingeo PLA resin, derived from plant sugars. The material is turning up in nonwovens wipes, diapers and feminine hygiene products. Robert Green, NatureWorks' North Americas director of fibers and nonwovens said, "We are seeing increased market interest in naturally derived, more environmentally friendly materials. Many nonwovens already contain natural components. Ingeo offers an opportunity to replace conventional petrochemically derived thermoplastics with a more environmentally friendly, naturally derived material. In addition, we are seeing a number of applications where customers are taking advantage of various performance aspects offered by Ingeo. Some examples include inherent UV resistance, excellent moisture management properties and interesting inherent FR properties."
Ingeo is sustainable because it is made from annually renewable plant sugars. In addition to offering a smaller environmental footprint than conventional thermoplastics, Ingeo can be produced from any plant based sugar source. "Longer term, we see Ingeo also being produced via cellulosic fermentation offering an even broader range of feedstocks. Ingeo is unique because it provides the environmental benefits typically associated with natural fibers while offering consistency and performance that is generally associated with nonrenewable petrochemically derived synthetics. We already have some customers that have products which are being chemically recycled to provide lactic acid for more PLA or various other uses. This is just one end of life option," said Mr. Green.
Experienced polyester staple fiber producer DAK Americas is also on a tear in the nonwovens market. DAK offers Delcron Hydrotec, a moisture management fiber that provides wicking ability. Hydrotec is permanently hydrophilic. It's integrated into the polymer itself and is currently finding its way into wipes and some industrial fabrics applications. DAK Americas also offers SteriPur AM, a silver-based antimicrobial fiber aimed at the needlepunch filtration market.
Wayne Proctor, DAK America's senior sales manager for nonwovens market said rising polyester prices have been the dominant trend this year. "Because of the raw material price run up, the cost of our raw materials is going through the roof and many customers want to buy something that is new and improved. They are looking for value. They are trying to get more from a value standpoint. Higher priced premium fibers are nice to have, but they are not really the drivers for customers at this time. We have people who can work with customers from a technical and R&D standpoint to understand their needs and match our fibers to their requirements. "Polyester has gone up 35 to 40 cents per pound since August of last year. This run up in raw material costs has dominated the marketplace. When you've gone up 35 to 40 cents per pound you've gone up such a sizeable amount. It's increased the cost of fiber by 30%."
With costs going through the roof, it is imperative to provide value and service to customers, said Mr. Proctor. "Supply chain is critical to everybody's marketplace now. They have to have fiber they can rely on from a processability standpoint and a delivery standpoint. Dependability of delivery is important," said Mr. Proctor.
Super Absorbent Fiber
Super Absorbent Fiber is another offering showing promise. David Hill, business development manager for Technical Absorbents said, "Our Super Absorbent Fibre (SAF) can be converted into a multitude of fabric and yarn structures by a diverse number of web-forming and yarn spinning techniques. As a fibrous superabsorbent, it allows for ease of handling and exceptionally substantive and even distribution profiles. SAF offers extremely high and rapid rates of saline and water uptake. SAF is non-irritant and can be used in applications demanding an exceptional toxicological profile. This clearly demonstrates that SAF offers unique benefits in terms of design and performance ahead of other types of available superabsorbents.
As industry and markets continue to demand improvements in absorbent product design, offering reduced raw material usage and an enhanced user comfort experience, fibers ranging from naturals like cotton, PLA or cellulose to synthetic grades of polyester and polypropylene to more specialty grades of superabsorbents will continue to be improved to help move nonwovens forward. "It think nonwovens market growth is the most important thing to fiber producers," said Trevira's Mr. Wittmann. "These activities and their growth is the driving force behind our growth and it is the nonwovens producers who have the power to develop new products based on what their customers want. If I look at what our customers are doing, they are the innovators in the nonwovens industry and the only thing we can do is support them by offering them the perfect solution.