What was new in 2021…
During the COP26 global environmental summit held in Glasgow in November last year, Ekaterra, the recently separated tea business of Unilever, announced that it has now produced some 42 billion 100% plant-based teabags for its brands including PG Tips and Lipton.
This has been achieved just a few years after Unilever started work on the development of the plastic-free teabags with INDEX exhibitors Glatfelter and NatureWorks (with their brand Ingeo), and is indicative of the enormous changes underway across the nonwovens industry and beyond.
In 2020, every second story concerning the industry understandably centred on PPE, facemasks and meltblown fabrics, as the coronavirus ravaged around the world. In 2021, the same attention was being paid to new bio-based feedstocks for nonwovens, in response to consumer pressure, brand demand and the European Commission’s Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) and pending legislation elsewhere in the world.
Many wipes manufacturers, for example, successfully switched to 100% cellulose nonwovens during the year, with both roll goods manufacturers and converters repurposing manufacturing lines and streamlining production schedules. In hindsight, it was not the best time to be attempting such major changes, due to the disruption caused by the ongoing pandemic, as well as well-documented global transportation issues. Nevertheless, the industry continues to rally to the call for change.
At the INDEX™20 show in Geneva, established fibre suppliers such as Lenzing and Kelheim – both specialists in cellulosics based on wood – and new players like Bast Fibre Technologies (BFT) and Infinited Fiber Company showcased solutions in this area.
BFT, headquartered in Victoria, Canada, is increasing its capacity in Europe for sustainable bast fibres for the nonwovens industry, having commissioned a first-of-its-kind dry fibre processing line at the plant of Faser Veredlung Tönisvorst (FVT) which it acquired in October.
The facility is also ideally equipped for rapid prototyping – from 100g to 1,000kg – and product development of novel fibre modifications to develop natural fibre solutions that meet customers’ specific requirements.
With over twenty years of fibre processing experience, FVT is located within close proximity to both major European centres for bast crop cultivation and nonwoven fabric producers. Its acquisition follows BFT’s strategy of establishing low carbon, regional supply chains by sourcing, producing, and selling within specific regions.
“We believe that the acquisition of our European facility and the subsequent commissioning of our dry processing for all natural fibres put BFT in an ideal position to help fulfill the goals in the EU to provide a future where plastic is eliminated in our waste streams and achieve true sustainability. The INDEX™ show was a great venue for us to showcase what BFT is capable of”, commented Jim Posa, President and General Manager of BFT.
This strategy has been further reinforced in January 2022 by BFT’s acquisition of Lumberton Cellulose (LC), currently a Georgia-Pacific Cellulose natural fibre processing facility located in Lumberton, North Carolina.
The purchase of LC builds on BFT’s existing relationship with Georgia-Pacific. In February 2020, it licensed a suite of patents relating to the use of bast fibres in a variety of nonwoven products and processes from Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products on a global, exclusive basis.
The LC facility is a highly automated, quality producer of natural fibres for the personal care and hygiene markets. Ideally located to serve BFT’s North American customers, BFT plans to grow and invest in the operation, establishing LC as its flagship US manufacturing site and opening new opportunities and markets for North American hemp and flax growers.
BFT currently has two brands – Sero multi-purpose hemp and Noval linen. Hemp is supplied in slightly thicker micron for multiple applications in Hygiene, Wipes and Industrial markets, while Noval is very soft, for a cloth-like feel in cosmetic and baby wipes. Both products have excellent moisture management properties and strength.
In Finland, Infinited Fiber Company has teamed up with Suominen – one of the leading manufacturers of nonwoven wipes substrates – to create a nonwoven sheet made from 100% regenerated textile waste.
Developed through collaborative R&D, the nonwoven is made with Infinited Fiber Company’s Infinna fibre, which is biodegradable, plastic-free and made from discarded cotton-rich textiles, making it a resource-efficient alternative to the conventional materials used in single-use nonwovens, such as polyester and viscose.
Infinited Fiber Company has already secured supply agreements with leading fashion and textile brands for its new fibre, including Bestseller, H&M and Patagonia, and during 2021 announced plans for a 30,000 metric tons per year plant in Finland, which will be operational by 2024. The process equipment for the new plant is being developed by INDEX exhibitor Andritz.
Lenzing™ Web technology is an important development for the spunmelt industry seeking sustainable feedstocks.
Three years ago, Lenzing invested €26 million in a pilot line for its Lenzing™ Web process and has subsequently filed around 40 patents related to this new manufacturing route.
In this process, dope cellulose is dissolved in MMO (n-methylmorpholine-n-oxide) and then extruded. The MMO is then washed out and recycled and the resulting web can then be hydroentangled.
The resulting spun nonwovens are biodegradable in water and soil and also compostable in just a few weeks, as well as being finish and binder free. Lenzing™ Web is also versatile, and Lenzing is manufacturing fine fibre (5-10 micron) webs and those based on coarser fibres of 20 microns and above. Multilayers are possible and the webs can be produced in basis weights of 16-100gsm.
As wipes substrates, these nonwovens offer good convertibility, fast wicking and homogenous lotion distribution in stacks.
Other target markets include cosmetic face masks – a growing market for nonwovens forecasted to reach a value of $14 billion by 2030 – where the benchmark plastic carriers can be eliminated, and filtration, to produce media with high dimensional stability, low elongation and good pleatability.
Kelheim Fibres meanwhile announced a long-term commercial collaboration with another Scandinavian company operating in the field of making new fibres from textile waste, Renewcell of Sweden.
The two companies aim to produce an annual 10,000 tons of superior quality viscose fibres from Renewcell’s Circulose, a 100% textile recycled material. The collaboration further aims to establish a fully European closed loop in which textile waste is collected, recycled and regenerated into new Circulose fibres.
There is also a place for recycled plastics in the portfolios of brands and manufacturers, and global chemicals giant SABIC – another first-time exhibitor at INDEX 2020 – showcased its Trucircle high purity recycled range.
Fibertex Personal Care has already created a range of nonwovens made from SABIC circular polypropylene (PP), using feedstocks derived from previously used plastics, certified under the ISCC PLUS (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) system.
The certified circular PP material produced is created from post-consumer mixed plastics that have been broken down into their molecular building blocks and then re-polymerized to create virgin plastics. The new materials can be used as a drop-in solution while meeting the brand owner’s requirements for purity and consumer safety for the hygiene industry.
SABIC applies the “mass balance” approach to polymers offered as part of its Trucircle portfolio and services, which span design for recyclability, mechanically-recycled products, certified circular products from the feedstock recycling of used plastics, and certified renewable products from bio-based feedstocks.