Flushable & Green Nonwovens

By Susan Stansbury, Contributing Editor | September 15, 2009

Everyone is talking about how to add benefits to their wipes but achieving this requires several hurdles.

Environmentally “friendly” nonwovens are coming into their own, according to experts in the industry. There are biodegradable, compostable, and now fully flushable choices. These latest nonwovens incorporate appropriate fibers. The various nonwovens fabrics including modified airlaid, hydroentangled and combination processes show promising alternatives with a range of performance factors.

The big brand marketers, producers and private labelers are rolling out their various wipes using these new nonwovens. Products ranging from Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle and Scott Naturals, to Rockline Industries’ Natural Choice represent the latest developments in biodegradable, flushable and dispersible wipes.

Where can the industry improve? How are these newest nonwovens making their way into wipes converting developments and across markets? These are important questions, especially for flushable products, considering the fact that industry leaders including INDA and EDANA want retailers to be encouraged to subscribe to the code of practice developed under the new flushability guidelines.

The problem is with the many, many smaller wet wipes converters and in niche markets where the biodegradable, compostable and flushables are often targeted today. The appropriate new fibers and nonwovens are just not crossing converters’ production lines to any great extent yet. In talking with several of these manufacturers, it’s apparent that:

1.Producers are still ramping up. Earth friend­ly fibers used in manufacture of nonwovens are in the midst of growing capacity to supply nonwoven roll goods suppliers. For example, according to Robert Green of Nature Works, capacity to supply Ingeo biopolymers made from plants, not oil, at the Blair, NE, Ingeo manufacturing plant has just doubled to 140 million metric tons. On the other side, nonwovens roll goods producers are improving their capabilities. Globally, the supply of nonwovens to meet biodegradability and flushability standards is uneven.

2.The new fabrics are not readily available to ev­ery­one who wants them. In calls to nonwoven fabric makers, there is a sometimes lengthy time to obtain updates on these new materials. Suppliers are sometimes overwhelmed with handling informational inquiries. One product developer reports calling several people at one nonwovens producer to find the right expert and obtain information about materials that ascribe to green and flushability requirements.

3.These earth friendly nonwovens are frequently tied up for particular brands or committed to certain key wipes producers. Certain tonnage coming on the market is earmarked for big brands.

4.Some wipes producers have been smart to pull together their own team to get the job done. Nick Santoleri of Rockline reported at INDA’s World of Wipes conference that they teamed with Ahlstrom and Lenzing to design their requirements. These requirements included a suitable nonwoven material that meets flushability guidelines, plus several additional factors such as processability on current converting equipment.

5.Smaller wet wipes converters have generally not been approached by nonwoven roll goods producers and sometimes have difficulty getting information, samples and trial rolls. In some cases, converters have to use earlier generation nonwovens to get projects started. This includes flushable products that flush because of their small size or are simply biodegradable but do not meet new flushability guidelines. And by the way, even the FTC is speaking out about biodegradable products that do not really break down in most of U.S. landfills. Meeting a biodegradable lab test protocol is not the same as real world results.

6.Truckload orders are often required. (And this is often true of all nonwovens.) The scale of nonwovens roll production with jumbo parent rolls of well over 100 inch widths surprises some niche product developers when minimum orders are reviewed. Whenever new nonwovens are rolled out, the nonwovens producers like to meet adequate order minimums to enable them to be as efficient as possible. Some of the latest nonwovens options might have been developed earlier, but certain sold out machines were an inhibiting factor.

While this isn’t an appealing portrayal for many in the industry, there is a good likelihood that environmentally friendly wet wipes will go through a number of additional evolutions in the next few years. Even nonwovens that meet the new flushability guidelines could undergo a series of improvements, all within guideline parameters. To get it precisely right on the first round seems a big hurdle when you consider the needs of various stakeholders. For starters, there are “green” fiber supplies and nonwovens processes that must be efficient and deliver competitive economies. Just the combination of choices offers a myriad of outcomes that are still being tested.

Consider just this one possibility for nonwovens design: According to Doug Brown of Biax-Fiberfilm, “Our intent is to make a combination meltblown/airlaid product with our technology combined with Dan-Web technology to produce a more cost effective wipe by using the energy savings and lower polymer costs associated with a Biax-Fiberfilm System.” This line should be up and running by the fourth quarter. Mr. Brown continues, “The second item we will introduce is the fact we will be able to use a variety of polymers and components in wipe material to make it a ‘greener’ product.”

Airlaid materials which contain about 80% cellulose and 20% resin binder (note there is no real “latex” in airlaid materials, which is a good thing) are evolving in several ways to serve “green” product needs. From hybrid processes involving air laying to special binder systems, there are new materials to evaluate.

Hydroentangled and hybrid processes are also delivering new flushable and environmentally friendlier options. The amount of entangling affects strength; fiber selection; and choice of webs that are hydroentangled--all affect materials outcome.

A key is to deliver consumer products that deliver strength necessary to perform well in use and degrade to meet standards afterwards. The fine line between strength-in-use and breakdown later is a complex design issue. Pick up some of the latest fully flushable travel packs and observe the tearing that occurs on removal from the pack…and you’ll experience the issue firsthand.

Current breakthroughs and commitments to improve wet wipes should keep the industry out in front to meet consumer needs.

About the Author
Susan Stansbury is a converting and wipes industry consultant who writes regularly for HPCW. She can be reached at susan@rightangleconcepts.com