Certain segments of the population today have a greater awareness of the composition of the individual constituents in products and are particular about a product’s environmental footprint. More importantly, among consumers who buy textiles and related products, environmental issues are of concern. Green products and technologies are desired particularly in metropolitan areas in developed economies. In cities like Washington, D.C., shoppers are charged 5 cents for plastic bags to encourage them to bring more eco-friendly reusable fabric shopping bags with them.
There is still a long way to go, but the textile industry has taken proactive steps to reduce environmental load by slowly and systematically moving away from processes and products that can pollute the earth. Among the different sectors within the textile industry, the technical textiles industry is playing its part to be environmentally friendly. With the medical textiles sector one of the top five performers among 12 product categories, it is in a position to make a meaningful contribution to this effort.
An eco-friendly attitude
Medical textiles over the past decade have registered an annual growth of four percent. According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the medical textiles sector is expected to have an annual growth rate of 3.87 percent over the next five years. Based on this figure, this sector’s growth will be higher than the GDP growth of leading economies such as the U.S. and Europe. With aging populations in the U.S., Europe and Japan—and a burgeoning population of young people in developing countries such as India—there will be a greater demand for medical and hygiene textiles. To date, the medical textiles sector has focused its attention on functionality, quality and standard compliance. The next phase should be to develop cost-effective “greener” processes and medical products to help the next generation health care industry.
Environmentally benign technologies
So many different physical and engineering technologies, such as gas plasmas, super-critical fluid extraction, laser and microwave technology, could be used to develop healthcare textiles. The performance and functionality of biomedical products can be enhanced by using such techniques.
Plasma, generally called the fourth state of matter, is eco-friendly. In the case of plasma technology, Europe has taken a lead role with good R&D funding from Europe’s “Framework Programme.”
One, ACTECO, is a program that focused on plasma science to improve surface functionalities of textiles for packaging and medical applications. One application of plasma technology is to enable plasma as a conduit to coat durable antimicrobials. In an ACTECO project, antimicrobials such as silver and ammonium chloride agents were deposited using different forms of plasmas, such as atmospheric plasma.
Bodily fluid repulsion is an important requirement for surgical gowns and drapes. Environmentally benign plasma at room temperature has been effectively used to make cotton surgical gowns water repellent by grafting chemicals such as heptadecafluorodecyl acrylate, minimizing water and other application fluids.
In addition to imparting super hydrophobicity and fluid repellency, plasma bombardment has been successfully utilized to create minute pores in polypropylene spunbond nonwovens to enhance surgeon’s comfort, while wearing such gowns for long duration during complex surgical procedures. More importantly, continuous and cost-effective atmospheric plasma was used in an industry/academia collaborative project involving Enercon Industries and Texas Tech. The project aimed to make synthetic polypropylene “cotton-like.”
Plasma can also be used as an effective sterilization tool. With the advent of continuous plasma, commercial use has become cost effective with less consumption of water and chemicals. According to Dr. Krupakar Murali, CEO of Multiversal Technologies Inc., whose doctoral research at University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on plasma physics, “Plasma will help with zero water consumption, no effluent and a smaller footprint.”
Green chemistry is a major research area in the field of chemical sciences with good government support. Historically, many natural products and herbs have been used for ages in medicine. Many branches of medicine have fully evolved that depend on natural products. Alternative medicine such as Ayurveda (North India), Siddha (South India), Unani (Greece/Arabia) exploit the benefit of natural herbs. The modern pharmaceutical industry is using natural herbs in many formulations; aloe vera, for example, is used extensively in cosmetics.
Recently, the medical textiles industry has started paying attention to these nature-based materials for developing premium healthcare products. A new field of textiles known as “herbal textiles,” is slowly developing. Healing textiles, diabetic control textiles, baby and adult care wipes have all used natural herbs. For example, the government of India has invested heavily in biotextiles, and a Center of Excellence in this field has been set-up in Avinashilingam University for Women in the South Indian textile city of Coimbatore. Research programs in this center focus on herbal finishing of textiles for biomedical applications.
For instance, a project carried out by Professors Vasugi Raaja and Prabha focuses on using atmospheric plasma to couple natural herbs to natural textiles. Specifically, plasma has been used to couple herbs such as guava (pisidium guajava) and prickly chaff flower (also known as devil’s horsewhip) with cotton textiles. These natural herbs are phytochemicals that contain flavonoids, tannins and terpenoids. Surgical gowns have been developed that have been found to have antimicrobial properties due to these natural phytochemicals.
Psychologically these gowns appeal to users as being skin friendly and made of natural products. According to these researchers, “The textile industry is moving away from being a craft to high-tech industry that necessitates the need for using sustainable products.”
Resurgence of natural fibers
In addition to eco-friendly processes and natural herbs, there has been an upsurge in the use of natural and regenerated fibers such as cotton, PLA and viscose, to develop hygiene and healthcare products. Sustained efforts by Nature Works LLC, have enabled PLA to be meltblown resulting in its use in filtration and barrier materials.
After hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invested heavily in a research program in New Orleans to find new and alternative applications for cotton. Projects by a team led by industry veteran Dr. Amar Sawhney focused on developing spunlace wipes for medical and industrial applications from unbleached, mechanically cleaned cotton. One project showed that greige cotton nonwovens can absorb surfactants and chemicals better than bleached nonwovens, enabling new, cost-effective and eco-friendly antimicrobial wipes.
The medical textiles field is an important sector within the advanced textiles sector. It should now emphasize sustainability in developing processes and products that are cost effective, and it should be understood that in the long run, benefits such as a smaller carbon footprint, consumer acceptance and better overall performance will offset the cost associated with being “green.” A more sustainable, environmentally friendly medical textiles field has to progress in the developed economies—a challenge for the industrial fabrics industry.
Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is the director of the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University.