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Nonwovens Industry Faces Sustainability Challenges

2024-01-30

Nonwoven materials have become a go-to choice in various industries, prized for their lightweight nature and ability to fend off microorganisms. Despite their widespread use, concerns about sustainability have emerged due to the disposable nature of nonwovens, posing a potential threat to the environment. In response, manufacturers are steering towards eco-friendly alternatives, with a particular focus on bio-based versions. The primary challenge on the horizon lies in minimizing the carbon footprint of nonwovens through a transition to organic feedstocks.

Growing Popularity

The appeal of nonwovens is surging across various industries, and the global nonwoven fabrics market is expected to witness a substantial CAGR of over 5% from 2021 to 2030, with the Asia-Pacific region taking the lead.  

 

Traditionally confined to reinforcing layers in collars and cuffs, nonwovens in apparel have evolved. They now extend beyond rigid internal linings and are employed in crafting outer segments of garments. While maintaining their role in enhancing stiffness and shape retention, nonwovens have found new applications, such as forming the front linings of coats.  

 

Technological strides have propelled the integration of nonwovens into outer layers of clothing. The modern characteristics of nonwovens—lightness, flexibility, and insulation—position them as ideal components for various clothing applications, especially in sportswear and outdoor performance apparel. Some companies not only supply nonwovens for clothing but also cater to diverse sectors like building materials, filtration, hygiene, and medical equipment.

 

The Role of the Pandemic in Driving Demand

The pandemic played a pivotal role in boosting demand for the nonwoven industry. The surge in global demand for sterilized consumer goods, especially in hygiene, medical protective equipment, and personal care, propelled the prominence of lightweight, cost-effective, and disposable nonwovens. Wipes became a primary application, alongside the high demand for nonwoven personal protective equipment, prompting some textile companies to repurpose manufacturing lines for medical materials and face masks.

Sustainability Concerns

The surge in demand during the pandemic shed light on the environmental challenges posed by nonwoven fabrics, raising concerns about waste and pollution associated with this versatile material. Due to their shorter lifespan compared to woven or knitted materials, nonwovens often end up in single-use applications like medical dressings, packaging, and personal protection equipment, contributing to heightened waste issues, particularly in medical textiles.

 

The urgency to address waste problems has fueled interest in biodegradable alternatives. A growing sub-segment of woven goods is now embracing renewable, organic fibers, offering a sustainable shift. The potential for a biodegradable nonwoven industry is vast, utilizing diverse fibers, including innovative options like chitin, derived from the shells of sea creatures, to cotton.  Despite the promise, biodegradable nonwovens face challenges in an industry predominantly dominated by synthetic petrochemical fibers, accounting for around 66% of material use. This dominance poses obstacles to the easy and safe decomposition of most nonwoven items in the environment.  

 

In contrast to single-use medical applications, nonwovens in clothing are typically integral to the durability of the garment. However, there's a growing movement in the fashion industry to replace petrochemical nonwovens with more environmentally friendly options. This aligns with broader efforts to substitute fossil oil materials like polyester, polypropylene, polyamide (nylon), and rayon with sustainable alternatives. Unfortunately, the fashion world remains heavily reliant on oil-derived sources, with polyester alone contributing to 40% of the industry's overall emissions. Nylon follows closely behind, and nonwovens in clothing often combine both materials. As the industry strives for greener substitutes, the challenges persist, highlighting the need for a comprehensive shift towards sustainable practices in fashion.

Renewable Nonwovens: Is Plant-Based Necessarily Greener?

The prospect of a broader shift towards renewable nonwovens appears likely, spurred by policy initiatives such as the European Union Single Use Plastic directives. Manufacturers, once exclusively offering petrochemical nonwovens, are adapting to the changing landscape.  However, the shift to plant-based nonwoven fibers doesn't inherently guarantee a greener outcome from both a carbon and environmental waste standpoint. Despite its bio-based origin, its non-readily biodegradable nature in the natural environment raises environmental concerns due to a chemical structure resembling ordinary polyester or polypropylene polymers.

Recycled and Compostable Options

Efforts are underway to enhance the carbon profile of synthetic nonwovens, even when derived from petrochemical-based fibers. In Europe, where over 30% of polyester fiber comes from recycled materials, there's a feasible supply chain for other nonwoven manufacturers to adopt this eco-friendly approach. Smaller startups are also making strides in the industry, producing fully compostable nonwoven materials. Additionally, partnerships between specialized bio-based startups and major players.  

 

In the quest for greener alternatives, the nonwoven industry is witnessing a transformation, with manufacturers exploring diverse avenues, from recycled options to fully compostable materials, signaling a promising evolution towards sustainability.

Where next?

The momentum behind fashion's shift away from petrochemicals appears to be a lasting trend. With a parallel surge in demand for sustainable materials in crucial nonwoven sectors like construction and medical care, the primary challenge ahead revolves around reducing the carbon footprint of this widely used material through the adoption of organic feedstocks.  

 

As the industry continues to navigate this shift towards sustainability, the trajectory of renewable nonwovens will play a pivotal role in reshaping the landscape of material production, influencing not only fashion but also vital sectors like construction and medical care. The journey ahead involves not only reducing environmental impact but also establishing a market where renewable options can seamlessly replace conventional materials.

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