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While some are shifting toward naturals, others are focusing on ways to make synthetic fibers greener.
Changes in consumer tastes, crazy raw material prices and, perhaps most importantly, government regulations, are rapidly changing the supply chain for many nonwoven-based products. Companies are lessening their reliance on traditional plastic-based fibers and looking toward more bio-based plastics and natural-based fibers.
While there will never be a total replacement for traditional plastics in many applications—either in terms of tonnage or performance—these changes are certainly changing the look of the disposable hygiene and wipes markets globally with more brands focusing on natural-based ingredient stories.
Manufacturers of both natural and synthetic fibers are responding to these changes with the development of new products, improved production processes and partnering with bio-centric companies to find ways to create a greener profile throughout their businesses.
“Sustainability is very important as recycled/re-engineered fiber is what we do. There is also more talk about a circular economy and an increased need for sustainable programs and products in the marketplace,” says Bryan Tickle, key accounts manager for Leigh Fibers. “This has caused us to think about different ways we can utilize all our capabilities at Leigh to create new products to fit a greener world. We have many more customers inquiring about taking their waste, creating a fiber product from that waste, and getting that fiber back to them in either bale or pad form to utilize in their end product. Circular Programs.”
Perhaps the biggest influence to nonwovens and nonwoven product design is the European Union’s Single Use Plastics Directive, which became effective in July 2021. This legislation, as well as impending similar measures in the U.S., Canada and other countries, has put the pressure on makers of wipes and feminine hygiene products, which are on the first list of products subject to regulations and labeling requirements. The response has been widespread with some companies already vowing to eliminate plastics from their products.
While the company’s wood-based biodegradable VEOCEL fibers, do not fall under the scope of the EU Single Use Plastics Directive and are not considered plastics, the company continues to focus on becoming more sustainable both through recent investment projects in Brazil and Thailand (€1.2billion) as well as investment at its existing Asian sites in China and Indonesia amounting to €200 million, where a key focus is group-wide climate neutrality. In 2019, Lenzing became the first fiber manufacturer to set a target to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to be net-zero by 2050. This carbon reduction target has been verified and approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative.
Additionally, a partnership with Swedish pulp producer Södra marks a further milestone in Lenzing’s efforts to achieve its climate and sustainability goals. These two global market leaders, which have been proactively promoting the circular economy in the fashion industry for many years, are joining forces to give the issue a further boost and to make a decisive contribution to resolving the global textile waste problem. An expansion of capacities for pulp recovery from waste textiles is also planned. The goal is to be able to recycle 25,000 tons of used textiles per year by 2025.
Sustainability is not only a very important element of strategy at Lenzing, but also a guiding principle for innovation and product development. Lenzing continued to expand its product offering for the textile and nonwovens sectors in 2021. The third quarter saw the presentation of the first TENCEL lyocell fibers made from wood- and orange-based fiber pulp. The upcycling of orange peels as part of the Tencel Limited Edition initiative represents a further successful step by Lenzing to develop new closed loop solutions together with partners along the value chain. The introduction of the first carbon-neutral fibers on the global nonwovens market under the VEOCEL brand comprises a further product innovation from the reporting year that exemplifies Lenzing’s ambitious path in climate protection.
“Responsible manufacturing has come a long way but there are always bad actors out there. The trick is we have to focus on what is best for human health long term,” says Carlyle, adding both plant- and petroleum-based fibers should continue to have a role in the nonwovens industry.
“From Lenzing’s point of view, plastic is a necessary raw material. It is needed but we need to learn how to dispose it responsibly,” he adds. “We tend to look at durable products differently than you do disposable products but we have to learn how to consider the impact of all these products.”
Noting that Lenzing’s growth strategy centers around Lyocell because it is a more sustainable fiber and process, Carlyle points to the company’s recent investment in Thailand, which is capable of making 100,000 tons of lyocell fibers to meet demand for this product.
Lenzing will continue to expand its production capacity for lyocell fibers in line with its sCore TEN strategy, which aims to generate 75% of its fiber revenue from eco-responsible specialty fibers such as TENCEL, Lenzing Ecovero and VEOCEL fibers by 2024. The Thailand site offers space for several additional production lines. The investment in the first phase already includes general infrastructure that would benefit future expansion. However, Lenzing will continue to look for opportunities to expand lyocell production in other parts of the world too.
According to Rahul Bansal, global business development head, nonwovens, at Birla Cellulose, cost and performance have been replaced by a combination of sustainability, performance and cost as key drivers for fiber selection. “Now, the raw material selection primarily depends on being sustainable in nature,” he says. “When I say sustainable, it means the raw material sourcing, manufacturing, product and its end of life phase don’t harm or degrade the environment, and this is followed by the most important criteria of suitability of raw material for present nonwoven technologies.
The name cotton stands for itself—consumers know and love the look and feel of cotton, however some synthetic fibers have done such a good job of replicating this look and feel, some consumers have thought its role in disposables was larger than reality. This has changed in recent years thanks to consumer educations efforts, led by Cotton Incorporated, greater consumer awareness in general and legislation efforts that have required improvements in labeling.
Not only does cotton offer sustainability benefits, it is also safe and healthy for skin and is naturally hypoallergenic. This is particularly important for people with sensitive skin and products designed to be used in areas of the body where skin tends to be more sensitive like baby diapers, feminine hygiene and adult care products.
On the consumer side, the use of cotton in wipes has been growing in recent years thanks to line improvements and investments of nonwovens producers serving this market. Cotton was initially considered only for the absorbent component of a baby wipe, but hydrophobic products, like Wildwood Cotton Technologies’ TruCotton, can now be used as a replacement for polyester or polypropylene in some applications.
Meanwhile, in hygiene, the interest in cotton-containing topsheets that touch the user’s skin has exploded. These developments were first seen in feminine hygiene applications but are now expanding into diaper products.
At last year’s Hygienix consumer products conference, Kudos, a diaper startup, received an innovation award for its diapers featuring 100% breathable cotton touching baby’s skin. Not only does this product have the ability to put out less carbon emissions than any other disposable diaper company, it is also the number one doctor-recommended material for those with rash or eczema and Kudos has the cotton natural seal for being lined with 100% cotton instead of plastic. Kudos diapers have also been certified to the strictest safety standard, OEKO-TEX Standard 100.
“We are here today because parents care about what’s in their baby’s diapers,” says founder and CEO Amrita Saigal. “They also care about the environmental impact of the products they buy.
“Studies indicate that diapers in landfills take up to 500 years to degrade, creating methane and other toxic gasses, using volatile chemicals that also end up in the ecosystem. 200,000 trees are lost each year to make disposable diapers for babies in the U.S. alone. If all diapers were made the Kudos way, 500 million pounds of plastic would be replaced with clean, unbleached, natural cotton. 2 billion pounds of fossil-fuel derived diaper materials would be sourced from renewable materials each year.”
In addition to softness and skin feel, the use of cotton is growing as government mandates are limiting the use of plastic feedstocks in single use goods, requiring manufacturers to consider new materials in products like disposable wipes and hygiene products.
As ingredient transparency is becoming more important, particularly with female consumers, the use of cotton has become more prominent in hygiene areas. Led by female owned hygiene companies, this trend is carrying over into the bigger brands like Procter & Gamble’s Always Pure brand which contains a percentage of cotton ingredient.
Cotton growers are also working to increase yields and improve the sustainability profile of the fibers. During the past 20 years, cotton growers have worked to do more with less. They have increased yields without increasing water use and globally cotton uses just 3% of all water used in agriculture.