Sustainability & Synthetics: The Nonwovens Industry Harnesses the Best of Both Worlds

Sustainability & Synthetics: The Nonwovens Industry Harnesses the Best of Both Worlds

As in most industries, in the world of nonwovens both suppliers and consumers are increasingly concerned over the eco-friendliness of the products and materials they produce and use. And in the nonwovens industry, manufacturers continue to make great strides to satisfy consumer demand for ‘green’ materials, despite their reliance on the many performance advantages of synthetic fibers.

The industry has found multiple methods for satisfying the sustainability demands of its products’ end users without sacrificing the use of synthetic materials, which deliver the advanced performance abilities consumers expect.  These strategies include:

  • making products more sustainable through composites of synthetic and natural fibers
  • using synthetic materials that can be recycled before or after use in nonwovens
  • incorporating semi-synthetics, which offer many of the performance characteristics of synthetics but can be sourced and disposed of more sustainably

Consumer Disposables Put Sustainability at the Forefront of the Nonwovens Business

The large consumer-facing markets for nonwovens – including diapers, baby wipes, and feminine hygiene products – will account for nearly one-fifth of new growth in demand for nonwovens through 2021. So consumer concern over the sustainability of the products they’re using and sending off to the landfill every day is an important aspect of nonwovens producers’ business.

One way of making nonwovens more eco-friendly is to use natural fibers like wood pulp and cotton in production instead of synthetic, petroleum-based materials. And producers are in fact gradually increasing their overall use of natural fibers. In terms of area, wood pulp and cotton are expected to see above-average gains through 2021.

Synthetics Offer Endless Possibilities in Nonwovens Production & End-Use Product Performance

However, to give up the use of synthetic materials altogether would be to miss out on a great many benefits they can bring to products containing nonwovens. Consider how much bulkier baby diapers used to be, for example. The fact that they are much thinner today, and yet very absorbent, has a lot to do with the role of synthetic materials in the production of their nonwoven components.

Synthetic, petroleum-based materials like polypropylene, polyethylene, and polyester are invaluable to the nonwovens industry due to their versatility. Since these polymers can be manipulated to offer a wide range of performance characteristics, these materials are the key to nonwovens producers’ ability to achieve just the right bulk, absorbency, softness, strength, and other features that we want in our nonwovens-based end-use products. Conversely, with natural fibers there is limited room for modification.

Spunmelt technologies, including spunbonding and meltblowing, are central to harnessing the possibilities of synthetic fibers, since these processes allow nonwovens producers to engineer their own fibers with the advanced performance features they bring to their end-use products. According to a recent study by analysts at The Freedonia Group, spunmelt nonwovens will account for over half of overall nonwovens sales growth through 2021.

So at the same time that natural fibers are growing in demand, spunmelt technologies continue to gain popularity throughout the industry. However, spunmelt processes are incompatible with natural fibers. In order to satisfy both performance and sustainability concerns, nonwovens manufacturers have had to develop formulations that combine the versatility and performance of synthetics with a more favorable environmental profile.

Composites, Recycling, & Semi-Synthetics Allow the Combination of Performance & Sustainability

With composites, nonwovens producers can mix and match different materials to achieve product offerings that are competitive in both their performance characteristics and their eco-profile. Webs of polypropylene can be bonded with webs of wood pulp, for example, to take advantage of the former’s softness while using less of the synthetic material. Kimberly-Clark’s Coform process uses such a combination in personal care and medical applications.

Another strategy is to focus on synthetic materials that either have already been recycled or can be recycled after their use in nonwovens, as this allows producers to harness the benefits of synthetics with less impact on the environment. Polyester (also known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET) is the most common material for plastic water bottles, and efforts to recycle waste items like these have ramped up in recent years to cut down on the amount of waste in landfills. Post-consumer-recycle (PCR) products like PET can be incorporated into nonwovens as a responsible means of raw material sourcing.

Yet another option is to use a semi-synthetic fiber such as rayon. Rayon fiber is a family of regenerated cellulose pulp fibers, natural in their origin but dissolved and extruded into a chemical bath for recasting into fibers. Rayon materials can be marketed as sustainably sourced and biodegradable, and yet they share some of the most favorable performance characteristics of fully synthetic fibers. Lenzing touts a prominent line of rayon fibers, including viscose and lyocell, which the company markets as an eco-friendly alternative to fully synthetic materials.

Learn More

For more insight into the state of the nonwovens industry, see The Freedonia Group's study Nonwovens Market in the US. This comprehensive report provides the following:

  • historical demand data and forecasts
  • market environment factors
  • industry structure
  • company market share

About the Author:

Matt Breuer is an industry analyst at The Freedonia Group, where he writes industry studies focused on the US chemical products and consumer products markets.

  Industry Studies      Textiles & Nonwovens