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Are Non-woven Fabrics Durable or Disposable?


In recent years, the nonwovens industry has seen a surge in the popularity of single-use products, despite the global push for sustainability and longer-lasting goods. While sustainable goals prioritize durable products, the disposable sector, particularly in absorbent hygiene products (AHPs), has witnessed significant growth.


AHPs, encompassing baby diapers, feminine care products, and adult incontinence solutions, make up a $120 billion retail industry. The baby diaper market alone is valued at $65 billion, followed by feminine care at $40 billion and adult incontinence at $15 billion, showing rapid growth. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated sales, initially driven by panic buying worldwide, on top of the already consistent 5% annual growth.  


Manufacturers catering to disposable markets have generally fared better during the pandemic than those focusing on durable products. The AHP industry's globalized structure, with major players evenly distributing manufacturing operations across continents, allowed it to navigate supply chain disruptions effectively. Additionally, new spunmelt capacity for AHPs entered the market in 2020 and 2021, contributing to sustained growth.


The growth of regional AHP markets correlates with the increased wealth of countries, exemplified by China's remarkable 25-year journey. In 1997, China's nonwovens industry produced only 228,000 tons, with 182,000 tons of drylaid products and 46,000 tons of spunmelt materials. Fast forward to 2021, and China's nonwovens production soared to 8.8 million tons, boasting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of +15% over the last 24 years, as reported by the China Nonwovens and Industrial Textiles Association (CNITA). This robust growth underscores the evolving landscape of nonwoven fabrics, especially in disposable applications. 


Disposable wipes, a significant nonwoven-based product category often offered by absorbent hygiene product (AHP) consumer brands, holds a market value of $20.82 million in 2022. Projections from analyst indicate a steady growth at a 6.8% CAGR, reaching $28.95 million by 2027. Baby wipes lead the market, comprising 48.4% of the total, and the demand for disinfecting, antibacterial, and healthcare wipes witnessed a surge during 2020 and 2021.


However, 2021 brought challenges for manufacturers and suppliers of disposable wipes, with the introduction of the European Union's Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD). This directive listed nonwoven wipes among the ten most commonly found discarded items on European beaches. Effective July 2021, the SUPD mandated warning labels on plastic-containing products, with extended producer responsibility (EPR) slated for December 2024 for cleanup, collection, and disposal.  


To evade negative branding and potential taxation, brands invested in developing wipes and feminine hygiene products based on alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. The shift to these alternatives gained momentum even as the industry grappled with the unforeseen shifts in consumer priorities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Disinfecting wipes became essential items, while demand for skincare and makeup wipes dwindled as remote work became the norm. The SUPD uncertainties, coupled with pandemic-induced challenges, prompted nonwoven manufacturers, converters, and brands to swiftly adapt by transitioning from synthetics to 100% cellulose fibers.


Amid these changes, another notable segment in the disposable nonwovens space emerged – personal protective equipment (PPE). The demand for face masks and other PPE skyrocketed globally during the pandemic, leading to shortages. This dynamic landscape highlights the adaptability and challenges faced by the nonwovens industry, navigating market demands, regulatory changes, and global crises. 


In the realm of durable applications, the automotive industry witnessed a rapid expansion of nonwovens for years. In the European automotive sector alone, the use of nonwoven fabrics grew at an impressive 11.3% annually from 2010 to 2015, outpacing the modest 1.3% average annual growth in car and light vehicle production during the same period. Although the growth in this sector has tapered off, it underscores the significant incorporation of nonwovens in the lightweight design strategies of vehicle manufacturers. 


However, the role of nonwovens remains crucial in the swift transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and alternative propulsion methods. Despite this, the automotive industry, in general, faced challenges since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global car and light vehicle production, reported at 91.7 million in 2019, plummeted to 77.6 million in 2020. The anticipated rebound in 2021 only saw a 3% increase, reaching 80.1 million units. Supply chain disruptions, raw material shortages, and notably, a scarcity of supercapacitors have significantly impacted the industry.  


Even with these challenges, nonwovens maintain a significant application in ICE vehicles, particularly in insulating materials that absorb engine noise and dampen vibrations. Additionally, the absence of waste heat from the engine requires innovative insulating solutions to address the potential chilliness in the passenger cabin of electric vehicles compared to conventional counterparts. The evolving landscape of nonwovens in the automotive sector continues to shape the industry, addressing emerging needs and adapting to the changing dynamics of vehicle propulsion.


Durable nonwovens find a crucial niche in the geotextiles market, facing challenges but poised for a 7% annual growth in the coming years. Approximately 750,000 square meters of nonwoven geotextiles, equivalent to 185,000 football fields, are sold annually, with 60% utilized in road construction. 


Apart from expediting construction and offering cost advantages compared to natural soils, geosynthetics present a significantly lower environmental impact. This not only reduces CO2 emissions but also lessens the need for extensive excavations in quarries or other environments.  


However, the European Commission (EC) is conducting an impact assessment study to evaluate the responsibility of geotextiles in releasing microplastics. While acknowledging the potential release due to harsh conditions, the International Geosynthetics Society (IGS) emphasizes the negligible environmental risk of geosynthetics. The IGS calls on the EC to consider the sustainability benefits and urges a comprehensive assessment of the entire lifecycle of products using synthetic materials.  


The IGS emphasizes that comparing geosynthetics to single-use consumer plastics is inappropriate, given the durability and long-lasting benefits they provide to communities. Geosynthetics offer significant environmental benefits, including a lower carbon footprint compared to other construction materials.  


Francesco Fontana, chair of the IGS Corporate Committee, points out that most plastic waste entering the environment results from poor waste management, with geosynthetics presenting an opportunity for recovery and recycling at the end of their life. Unlike consumer plastics, geosynthetics do not typically degrade, offering a sustainable means to protect vulnerable coastal zones and manage plastics in landfills.  


As discussions unfold around the potential legislative impact on geotextiles, it is evident that these durable products provide essential contributions to global infrastructure projects, reinforcing the need to recognize their substantial benefits.

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