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Life-saving textiles

December 20th, 2021 / By: / Feature

Finnish nonwovens manufacturer Suominen offers a sustainable portfolio of products made of renewable, recycled and/or plastic-free raw materials as well as compostable and dispersible nonwovens. Photo: Suominen. 

Experts weigh in on the future of the nonwovens market. 

by Seshadri Ramkumar

Textiles are necessities in our daily lives, but single-use and semi-durable products where nonwoven materials find predominant applications have become absolutely indispensable for hygiene and personal protection. COVID-19 has in fact, strengthened the presence of nonwoven products that quite literally help to save lives. 

However, in these applications, quality and cost play dual roles in consumer acceptance. Nonwoven fabrics are relatively less costly compared to other fabric structures due to the type of raw materials used and the processing techniques, which are typically capable of meeting mass production requirements.

While consumers may not have been aware of nonwoven products and technologies, because of the pandemic, life-saving products such as medical coveralls and facemasks have become common household names. Face masks were the first line of defense till vaccines were available as countermeasures to the pandemic. 

Even with the availability of vaccines, face coverings and other protection measures continue to be recommended. Recent work at Texas Tech University has shown that spunbond-meltblown-spunbond masks are good enough to protect the wearer from viral-like particles, provided they are properly used with good fit.

Research data from several groups has reinforced such findings, paving the way for multiple opportunities for nonwovens and other hybrid fabric structures in hygiene, medical and environmental sectors.

The nonwoven sector’s status

The recent Global Nonwovens Markets Report by INDA (Association of the Nonwovens Fabric Industry) and EDANA (European Disposables and Nonwovens Association) shows that the sector’s production rate outpaced the annual GDP growth of some developed nations. According to this report, global production of nonwoven items increased by 6.2 percent annually during 2010-2020. As expected, market segments such as wipes, filters and medical items led the growth.

According to Brad Kalil, director of marketing intelligence and economic insights of Cary, N.C.-based INDA, worldwide production of nonwoven material reached 17.9 million metric tons in 2020. North America and Greater Europe accounted for 44 percent, China for 40 percent and India for 3 percent of global production.

The nonwovens industry in North America has shown its resilience during the COVID pandemic and is emerging as strong as ever with new investments in capacity, new material developments to address sustainability aspirations, and continued mergers and acquisitions activity, changing the makeup of industry leadership, says INDA president Dave Rousse.

Pandemic scenarios, as well as sustainability issues, offer opportunities as well as challenges for the industry. COVID-19 has actually strengthened the nonwovens sector, and there is tremendous opportunity for the converting sector to grow in India, says Dr. Prakash Vasudevan, director of the Center of Excellence for Medical Textiles in Coimbatore, India. 

In India and other countries where multiple-use surgical gowns were common, COVID-19 has shifted the focus to nonwovens-based, single-use hospital gowns, which is a positive sign for the nonwovens sector Vasudevan says.

Sustainability focus

Nonwoven material lends itself to be converted to cost-effective, value-added products. Certain inherent characteristics of nonwovens, such as meltblown fabrics that have relatively high surface area, porosity and bulk, enable them to be used as filters and absorbent products. These properties are functional in nature providing materials for high-performance applications. 

An immediate challenge for the industry, which can be turned into opportunity, is the sustainability issue. Again, the ongoing pandemic has highlighted the need for awareness for sustainable nonwovens, including circularity issues and proper disposal. While synthetic nonwovens due to their cost and functionality are good candidates in certain applications, the industry should make a concerted effort to develop next-generation sustainable, high-tech products. 

Dr. Vasudevan cautions that issues such as the disposal of medical waste and infrastructure needs like incineration facilities must be immediately handled by the nonwovens and technical textiles sector.

“Sustainability can mean different things to different people, so there are a wide variety of sustainability claims made to get on this bandwagon, using terms like “natural” and “free from” and adding small percentages of cotton, hemp, wood-based fibers and others,” says Rousse. “There is a push for a plastic-free wipes substrate by 2025, and a lot of material science activity to achieve this.”

Prof. Brian George, vice chair of TAPPI’s Nonwovens, Engineers and Technologists Division adds, “I think there may also be a time when the industry has to defend itself against fiber shedding or fibers ending up in the environment through dryer sheets or synthetic fiber geotextiles that break down, or flushable wipes made out of synthetic fibers that don’t biodegrade quickly.” TAPPI (Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry) is based in Georgia. 

What’s Next

Sustainability issues are at the fore and provide plenty of opportunities for industry and academia to work together on projects that will take the industry to the next level. Immediate needs include developing sustainable products using economical approaches, biodegradable and sustainable raw materials, green chemistries and environmentally friendly processing. 

While investments may be very large to install new and more productive roll goods manufacturing for which there is enough capacity, there is a need to build downstream processing and the converting sectors. Such developmental activities will be best suited for small and medium-scale enterprises. Particularly in countries such as India, where the technical textiles sector dominates efforts, it will also lead to social sustainability by providing opportunities for job growth. 

COVID has driven innovation in nonwoven filter media as well as in other PPE.  Some developments that are on the horizons are filter media with higher flows, lower pressure drops and higher filtration efficiency over equivalent surface areas, says Chris Plotz, director of education and technical affairs at INDA.

Nonwoven products that find applications as PPE have been in use in pandemic and high-risk situations. COVID-19 has heightened the need for maintaining adequate stock, increasing domestic manufacturing, engaging in research, as well as enhancing and updating testing and quality to suit the requirements of end users. 

“The industry has developed face masks that have 99 percent filtration efficiency, surgical gowns and coveralls that would serve as barriers for virus and bacteria that are as small as 28 nanometers. Since the COVID pandemic is global and came suddenly, it’s very challenging to meet the exponentially increased demand,” says Vamsi Krishna Jasti, product development manager-medical for Finnish global nonwovens producer Ahlstrom-Munksjo. “Probably sourcing and manufacturing locally could eliminate some of the longer lead times associated with supply chain; however, this is very cost sensitive, and I’m not sure if consumers are prepared for it.”

Value-addition and functionalization of nonwovens and technical textiles need attention to penetrate new markets and applications. “Functionalization can enhance comfort, provide temperature control, enhance protection, and help with wellness,” says Ganesh Srinivasan, CEO of Bengaluru, India-based Resil Chemicals. 

However, the cost aspect must be examined when developing high performance materials. Through volumes and technological advances, price issues can be addressed, added Srinivasan. While wipes are penetrating all sections of the society, it is important to enhance the awareness of nonwovens and technical textiles among general populations, he emphasizes. 

What should the industry focus on? There is no single answer to this question. In developed economies the sector should concentrate on sustainability, and there is a need to focus on growing the converting sector, which manufactures end-use products such as packaged wipes, converted filter products and industrial technical products, which are used both by institutions and individual consumers. More importantly, technical and shop floor-level skill training programs are necessary to grow the industry.

The nonwoven sector is the future industry and should focus on high-end industrial and consumer products that are sustainable. “I think COVID has brought nonwovens into the spotlight a bit. It has certainly been big business for people who make masks and for fabric manufacturers for masks, but I’m not sure that the industry itself has taken advantage of this to inform the average consumer about nonwovens, what they are and how they are helping to fight COVID,” says Prof. George. 

Nonwovens are in the right place and at the right time, but there are issues to address, including cost, sustainability, consumer appeal and applications. More importantly, creating proper awareness to harness the full potential of nonwovens in life-saving applications is the need of the hour. 

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D. is a professor at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.