Green is gold: vision speakers affirm that eco-friendliness is important to nonwovens.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
You can't open up a newspaper or turn on the news these days without hearing about global warming and ways o be kinder to the environment. Catch phrases like "carbon footprint," "sustainable living" and "biodiversity" have creeped into the mainstream, and it was clear the nonwovens industry has not escaped this phenomenon at February's Vision Consumer Products Conference.
At a Wednesday afternoon session dedicated to sustainability, a standing-room only crowd came out to hear executives from Kimberly-Clark and Wal-Mart discuss their companies' approach to increasing their sustainability.
Calling sustainability his "favorite subject," Ken Strassner, vice president global environment safety, regulatory and scientific affairs at Kimberly-Clark, explained to the audience that his company feels it has a special responsibility--given the types of products it makes--to practice sustainability efforts and reduce their environmental impact as a way to be more socially responsible and trim costs.
"Sustainability can be good business," he said. "There are all kinds of opportunities out there in nonwovens and in virtually every business."
Six months ago K-C began the process of looking at all of their business units to develop a plan and create an organizational structure and the company will imbed sustainability into this process. Additionally, the company is planning to publish its seventh sustainability report.
Under its Vision 2010, K-C is aiming to further reduce its wastewater, examining alternative forms of energy and eliminate its landfill waste. Other efforts in sustainability include the development of environmentally friendly products and the creation of a guide to sustainable practices for its suppliers.
Speaking on Wal-Mart's views on sustainability was Kim Brandner, senior manager--sustainable textiles, who called sustainability a gateway for Wal-Mart to be a better company in the face of population growth and stressed resources. "Innovation is truly the thing that is going to drive this," he said.
There are millions of definitions of sustainability, he added, and Wal-Mart defines it as the economic benefits derived from improved environment and social outcomes. Its goals include increased energy efficiency in the products it sells and making sure its suppliers are practicing sustainability.
With 92% of its environmental footprint representing products, it makes sense for Wal-Mart to work with its suppliers to focus on sustainability. Already, its packaging scorecard, a measure designed to get consumer goods companies to reduce their packaging, has saved $5 billion while lessening waste and reducing environmental impact.
"What we are trying to do is take inefficiencies out of the supply chain and drive down costs for our customers," Mr. Brandner added.
Even before Vision, the nonwovens industry had caught the green wave with many companies throughout the supply chain offering sustainable products and other environmentally friendly options. Even the 2008 Visionary Awards competition reflects this development with several of this year's finalists touting eco-friendly benefits. Eco-Lab's Glass Cleaner uses an impregnated nonwoven sleeve so the consumer adds his own water to the bottle before use. This reduces shipping weights considerably and allows for the packaging to be reusable. Eco-Lab engineer Sherri Tischler, in fact, cited the products' ability to support sustainability efforts as its most important benefit.
Another friend to the environment, Method Products was nominated for its OMop Dry sweeper cloth, a disposable dry sweeper cloth similar to Swifter but made from 100% polylactic acid, a renewable plastic derived from corn, removing petro-based feedstocks from the equation. Thirdly, finalist Reliance Industries received a finalist nod for its nonwoven consumer shopping bags, which can be used in place of disposable bags.
In fact, reusable nonwoven bags are popping up in most retail stores giving shoppers an alternative to disposable plastic bags when toting their purchases home. Wal-Mart's Mr. Brandner said that his store sells these bags at cost to provide consumers' incentive to use them.
Roll Goods Take Notice
Among the nonwovens producers focusing heavily on adding green to its business is Finland's Suominen Corporation. At last year's INDEX Exhibition in Miami, FL, the company introduced Biolace, a spunlaced nonwoven made solely from natural renewable fibers. Produced from varying combinations of natural raw materials, Biolace products have an Oeko-Tex Standard 100 Class I certificate. Biolace products are also free of animal-derived materials or any harmful substances. Intended to complement Suominen's other nonwoven products, hydroentangled Biolace is ideal for numerous wipe applications, ranging from baby and personal care to cleaning. "Since Biolace was launched in April 2007, we have believed that we are on the right path with these products, and the message from the markets indeed confirms our thoughts," said Henri Laitervo, director of new business development and marketing at Suominen.
Meanwhile, in its wipes business, Suominen is offering natural baby wipes from sustainable nonwovens and new formulations to offer consumers a new option in personal care.
In fact, it is the wipes segment that has seen much innovation on the green front. In addition to the Method O-Mop, there are a number of wiping products based on Natureworks' Ingeo PLA fiber, which is based on renewable sources achieving fewer carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel usage. Among these are Rockline Industries, the contract manufacturer who worked with Method in developing the O-Mop and has reportedly several other sustainable-focused projects in the works; Valor Brands, a diaper and wipes company launching a baby care brand containing Ingeo and other eco-friendly raw materials; Naturae, an Italian personal care brand and Ben's Land, a maker of natural baby care products.
Meanwhile, on the roll goods level, Strateline Industries, recently entered the nonwovens market with its commitment to manufacture product taken out of the waste stream. From a Rodgers, AR facility once owned by PGI Nonwovens, Strateline is making wipe substrate materials from industrial waste, such as cotton T-shirts, in a practice that not only is kind to the Earth but also makes good business sense, said company spokesman Jeffrey Post.
With Sustainable Solutions, Inc., a former partner that the nonwovens producer purchased in early March, Strateline will use regenerated cotton waste as the raw material for spunlaced nonwoven wipes. The nonwovens made in Rodgers will be converted into disposable wipes by converting partner Rockline Industries.
While using raw materials that would have been scrapped is Strateline's method of being sustainable, new alternative raw materials have created other opportunities for nonwovens producers and end users. Leading the charge here is Natureworks' Ingeo PLA fiber--based on 100% renewable resources. According to the company, this raw material choice shows 80-90% fewer carbon dioxide emissions and 50% less fossil fuel use. And, this environmental footprint is expected to shrink even further as the company implements new technologies to reduce energy use and create better efficiencies in the overall production process.
The role of Natureworks has become prominent in many industries where it has replaced oil-based feedstock. On the nonwovens front, already several companies including Fiberweb, Japan's Toray and Unitika, Suominen, Ahlstrom, Fama Jersey, Libeltex and Vita Nonwovens have incorporated it into nonwovens technologies ranging from spunbond to spunlace to needlepunched for a range of final consumer products.
In fact, the many nonwovens producers using Natureworks are reporting strong demand for their products from green-minded brands such as Seventh Generation and Method as well as from more mainstream consumer products companies seeking to offer an ecological alternative in their product line-ups.
"The way we have seen the situation evolve is that smaller players are basically running on the wave of green issues," said Suominen's Mr. Laitervos. "Companies like Seventh Generation and Method are jumping up and down and are very happy about this kind of product."
Beyond Natureworks, DuPont's Sorona polymer is also made from a monomer created through a fermentation process. The recipient of an IDEA2007 Award in the raw material category, Sorona is made with 37% renewable material by weight, require 40% less energy to produce and releases 50% less greenhouse gas emissions, all without sacrificing performance. While initial use of this polymer has targeted applications outside of the nonwovens realm such as carpeting, DuPont executives are reporting interest from wipes suppliers as well as for batting, clothing insulation, filters and dryer sheets.
Meanwhile, cotton--perhaps the fiber most synonymous with nature--has been steadily expanding its role in nonwovens applications thanks to its performance attributes as well as efforts among many nonwovens suppliers to adapt their equipment to handle the material. The use of cotton in areas such as baby wipes gives manufacturers a means to differentiate their products from others on store shelves. Add to that, Cotton Incorporated's trusted cotton enhanced logo, which signifies a product to comprise at least 15% cotton and you have a product that not only connotes the purity and naturalness of cotton but that also contains a raw material that is 100% biodegradable at the end of its lifecycle.
Whether the focus is on biodegradability, sustainability or just an overall reduced environmental footprint, the nonwovens industry is clearly on board the green wave as manufacturers look to differentiate their products, offer an eco-friendly alternative to their customers and please retailers looking to increase their social consciousness. Surely, in the future the nonwovens and disposable products markets will continue to see more products, which, like Naturae's baby care products and Method's O-Mops, contain sustainable raw materials, or in the case of Strateline Industries, use materials once destined for the trash heap, and can not only improve sustainability but also trim costs.
By Karen McIntyre