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Diaper components: a changing market in changing times.

suppliers of diaper films, tapes and elastics adapting to changing market demands; manufacturers respond to environmental and cost issues

In a consolidating industry with the growing consumer demands of price, comfort and responsibility to the environment, never has it been more important to be all things to all customers. In today's market, suppliers of "accessories" for diapers - the films, tapes and elastics that make up the component materials of the absorbent product - are responding to these demands with new products that meet all of the property requirements.

Likewise, a growing adult incontinence market also has suppliers researching new components for an even more price-conscious field. And with the developing world comes a developing demand for baby diapers that again require different substrates and price structures in different geographic areas. All in all, suppliers must cope with varied demands and problems as they struggle to provide a variety of products for these markets.

Thin Is Still In

Thinness is still the largest major concern as diaper producers fight to fit more diapers into less packaging on more shelves around the world. Once gender specific diapers blossomed in the marketplace and SKU's became an even more valuable commodity, the thin issue trickled down to baby diaper components as well. Obviously, this is more prevalent in the film area, although elastics suppliers are also responding in terms of products with lighter weight and continued high strength.

The thin solution addresses two problems in the industry: cost and the environment. Less film or elastic means less expense and also less waste. "Thinness is an issue both from a cost standpoint and from an environmental view," said Jennifer Bumbu, market manager at CT Film, Schaumburg, IL. "Our customers must be competitive; at the retail level this is a very competitive market."

Clopay vice president, marketing Thomas Ryle focused on the cost issue. "Thinness is more cost driven than anything else," he said, "although you can also attain better softness."

However, thinness is a double edged sword. Mr. Ryle cautioned, "It does put limitations on performance. Of course we can make the film, but we must address the areas of product strength, adaptability of converting machinery - without adding more waste - and dealing with burn-through issues when hot melt adhesives are used."

Thinness is also an issue in Europe from both perspectives, said Tricia Featherstone, commercial manager at Ace Vekaplast, Liege, Belgium. She did point out, however, that while suppliers are conscious of the environmental implications of the product, this burden is concentrated more heavily in the packaging materials area.

U.K. film supplier Taco Plastics, Winsford, is also concentrating on reducing the thickness of film. "Down-gauging is an ongoing part of our development with our customers and a further environmental benefit," said Paul Samuel, managing director. "There is tremendous opportunity for development here if you have the right equipment, because the quality consistency required is all the greater."

Environmental Concern

Takes Several Forms

Now that disposable diapers have begun the uphill climb towards respectability once again in terms of the environment, producers must live up to their promises and years of research to make a more environmentally friendly product. In terms of films, tapes and elastics, this means thin, natural and in some areas, compostable.

Compostability has been the major concentration at films suppliers, thanks largely to the much-publicized efforts of Procter & Gamble and its compostable prototype diaper. However, in spite of all this talk, film suppliers report no customers are putting their money where their mouth is. "Yes, we have a compostable product," said Ms. Bumbu. "But no one has yet taken it to market." Concerns include cost, she said, as well as the lack of composting facilities and the negative publicity that surrounded biodegradable products a few years ago.

At last year's IDEA'92 show, Clopay introduced a compostable backsheet, which it reports has been in development for several years and is a result of such environmental concerns. It remains to be seen if these environmental concerns will translate into new diaper products, however.

In the diaper tape area as well, while the technology is there, the commercial demand is not. "We have developed technology for a compostable diaper tape," said Bruce Baird of 3M, St. Paul, MN, which makes tapes for diaper closures as well as film for the frontal surface of the closure system. "However, no one is ready for it commercially." He added that sampling by several diaper suppliers has been done, but the requirements of the market have not been completely determined.

Other companies are addressing the environmental issue in other ways. Another supplier of diaper tapes, Anchor Continental, Columbia, SC, has developed a new tape that does not use solvents in the manufacture. "As the environment continues to be an issue, we chose to make this move," said Harriet Price, sales manager. "It will also help us in the production plant."

At Ace, environmental issues are being addressed by targeting the plant's own waste. "We have added a regranulating facility and we now reuse or recycle all our own scrap," said Ms. Featherstone.

Taco Plastics has just earned the honor of becoming the first manufacturer in the U.K. to receive the Yarsley Green Dove award. "This is an official assessment that we meet the standards of BS.7750, the environmental equivalent of BS.5750 and ISO 9002 quality standards and likely to be the benchmark for future European environmental management systems and procedures," explained Mr. Samuel. The company has developed an environmental policy statement and defined its commitment in terms of quality, the environment and safety. "The link between the three," said Mr. Samuel, "is investment. Continuous investment in people and resources is a key part of Taco's philosophy."

Potential Growth In Al,

Developing Nations

All the suppliers of diaper components are also involved in the adult incontinence market, a market that everyone agrees has the potential to grow at a rapid rate. "The market is growing faster percentagewise $(than baby diapers$)," said Ardie Emery, sales manager at Du Pont, Wilmington, DE, which manufactures "Lycra" spandex for elastics applications, "although from a smaller base." The question, then, is how fast will it grow and can it fulfill its potential? This is not as easy a question to answer and the industry must work out several problems before growth forecasts can be realized.

"The need for adult incontinence is simply not perceived in the same way as the need for baby diapers and changes will have to be made before the area grows to its potential," commented Goran Elovsson, director-sales and marketing, JPS Elastomerics, Greensboro, NC, adding that one problem that still needs attention is the "embarrassment factor."

Another problem is the prohibitive cost and lack of money from the older, income-controlled customers who require the product. "The only thing that will allow the adult incontinence market to grow to the projections we've seen in the past few years is if government - through Medicare or Medicaid - agrees to subsidize the product," said CT Film's Ms. Bumbu. "That's how it works in Canada and Europe and it's the only way it will work in the U.S. The cost factor is definitely prohibitive."

While in Europe cost may not be as much of an issue, winning over consumers is still a problem. Ms. Featherstone commented on customers' unwillingness to purchase the products. "This has certainly hindered growth," she said, "as has the lack of advertising and the fact that traditionally, products were available only through hospitals and not on store shelves."

In short, adult incontinence still has a way to go to become the large market it has the potential to be. While suppliers continue to watch this market, other emerging baby diaper markets in developing nations have also captured their attention.

Yet, specific market growth potential varies greatly according to geographic region. Mr. Ryle of Clopay, said, "There are strong growth possibilities in baby diapers in South America and the Far East, with the exception of Japan. We're still waiting to see what will happen in Europe and Russia, although the opportunity is there, while in the U.S. and Europe, adult incontinence is where the potential lies."

While adult incontinence and baby diapers for developing countries offer new challenges, will training pants be the next frontier? Yes, according to suppliers of component products. Now that several private label suppliers have followed K-C's "Huggies Pull-Ups" into the market and P&G also is expected to introduce a competitive product in the next year (a test market in Japan was pulled late last year without explanation), component suppliers are focusing on this market as the next big growth area.

A Look At What's New

As the market changes and demand varies according to region and product specifications, all the film, tape and elastic suppliers have been busy with product development and R&D. Here's a brief look at what's new from these manufacturers.

* New at 3M is a diaper backsheet "Scotch" microporous film, its first foray into the diaper film market. The film is currently commercial, although it is not yet being used on any commercial diaper. The Scotch brand product is available pigmented, printed, embossed or laminated to a nonwoven and also has application in industrial protective apparel and certain non-viral medical end uses.

* CT Film has been working on a new technology for polypropylene films. The film offers unique characteristics in terms of a soft thermoplastic material that bonds easily to polypropylene nonwovens. According to Ms. Bumbu, it has all the advantages of a polyethylene material with a soft, quiet hand and lower density.

* ln addition to Clopay's compostable diaper backsheet, the company also introduced several other films at last November's IDEA show. One is a soft polyethylene film that retains the toughness and barrier properties of current backsheets, but adds a degree of quiet performance suitable for adult incontinence applications, while a second new product is a thin-gauge composite that also retains barrier properties but provides the look and feel of cloth. A mechanically modified polyethylene film that uses state-of-the-art embossing for a soft, quiet and economical barrier film is also new. All the products are commercially available, with the exception of the mechanically modified polyethylene film, which should be available in six months to a year.

* Ace also introduced several film products at IDEA'92 and is particularly pleased with the acceptance of its "Sanitace' backsheet, a spunbonded laminate. Ms. Featherstone reports that because of its softness and quietness, it is finding application in adult incontinence products. Ace is also working on its Code 90 series of films, which offer all the qualities of a 25 or 27 micron film in a 22 micron product, providing a film that is thin, yet strong.

At Ace's Liege facility, which will achieve ISO 9000 certification in mid-1993, a new Sano line is in place and should be up and running this month. The company also has a brand new factory at the site, where it will be moving current lines beginning in 1994. Also included at the site are a state-of-the-art laboratory, a satellite facility with flexo-printing capabilities, off-line slitting for capacities down to 40 mm and a new laminating line that gives Ace the capability to adhesive laminate as well as extrusion laminate.

* European supplier Sengewald, Westfalen, Germany is also adding equipment to its film facility. The new extrusion equipment can blow both polypropylene and polyethylene to a thickness of eight microns and targets film laminate applications as well as training pant uses.

* In the area of diaper tapes and elastics, Anchor Continental recently introduced a new environmentally friendly adhesive tape for the diaper industry and is also working on producing a frontal panel for tape placement.

* Du Pont has been concentrating on its "Lycra XA" spandex product, expanding its line in Maitland, Canada. The expansion adds a 740 decitex and a 470 decitex product to the line, offering four different size yarns instead of two for varied product requirements.

* JPS continues to concentrate on its natural rubber and polyurethane threads for the diaper industry, although it also makes tapes for specialized leg elastification uses, particularly outside the U.S.

Fluff Pulp Continues To Fill An Absorbent Need

In the 1970's - before superabsorbent polymers - fluff pulp was the primary absorbent resource in the diaper market. Now, some 15 years after the introduction of superabsorbents, fluff pulp is still here. Estimates of the worldwide production of fluff pulp or 1992 range from 2.7 to 2.9 million metric tons, with slightly more than 70% of that figure produced in the U.S. While there is no question that superabsorbents have had an affect on the fluff pulp industry, fluff pulp is here to stay.

Inherent in the increasing use of superabsorbent polymers in baby diapers in Europe and North America is a reduction in the amount of fluff pulp used in each diaper. However, this does not mean the industry has declined, as new markets continue to open up. "Superabsorbents have had an effect on the traditional North American, European and Japanese diaper markets - grammage per unit has dropped," said Ken Pipher, director of sales, fluff and specialty pulps, ITT Rayonier, Stamford, CT. However, "developing nations are experiencing dramatic growth in the demand for thick diapers," he added. "Thickness is goodness' in these new markets."

Robert Leahy, director of corporate communications, International Paper, Purchase, NY, agreed. "Superabsorbents have taken 25% of the demand for diaper fluff pulp worldwide, but this is not reflected in a drop in total worldwide fluff pulp demand," he said.

Grunnar Lindmark, product manager, Stora Cell, Skoghall, Sweden, explained. "When superabsorbent polymers were first introduced, there was some concern about falling demand for fluff pulp, but this didn't happen. The growth in penetration levels matched or even surpassed the loss of pulp per unit."

The introduction of superabsorbents has, however, indicated the direction for the future of the fluff pulp industry. "There is no question that the trend is towards thinner and thinner products, but this is a trend that will place new demands on fluff pulp producers," James Bryja, director of fluff pulp sales, Georgia-Pacific, Atlanta, GA, said. With thinner and more absorbent products that use less and less pulp, the industry will be challenged to develop newer pulps that meet more exacting demands for greater strength and network characteristics.

In many ways, the fluff pulp product has not changed drastically in the last 20 years. Today, superabsorbents and thinner products are prompting changes, such as P&G's development of curly cellulose fibers and other companies' concentration on more highly engineered pulps. The trend is also towards tailor-made pulps, designed for specific product characteristics.

The fluff pulp industry has also had to endure environmental examination. Fluff pulp manufacture, life the paper industry from which it originated, has been subject to close scrutiny in terms of its bleaching process. When elemental chlorine in the process was linked to the formation of dioxin, there was a rush to produce totally chlorine free pulp.

CTMP (chemi-thermo-mechanical pulp), a totally chlorine free product that uses only peroxide, looked like it was going to become an industry standard, despite insufficient quality levels. However, suppliers have now stated that dioxin is not currently a concern, even though the dioxin issue is not completely settled (the EPA determined last year that the dioxin found in absorbent products presented no risk, but it will be issuing new findings later this year), and mills have begun producing elementally chlorine free (ECF) pulp as a higher quality, but equally safe, product.

There is also continued interest in creating the most "environmentally friendly" effluent at the mills. Almost all the pulp made around the world is, or will soon be, of the ECF type, which uses oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and chlorine dioxide to bleach the pulp. Some companies, such as Raumacell, Rauma, Finland, with its "PeroKarft" pulp, are already producing a TCF (totally chlorine free) pulp, using only oxygen and hydrogen peroxide.

Likewise, all of Stora Cell's pulps are produced without the use of elemental chlorine gas. Effluent measurements have become another factor in the pulping process, with companies striving to produce the same quality and brightness with the least environmental impact.

On one final environmental point, it should be noted that fluff pulp is a natural product and should be marketed as such. Fluff pulps are made of wood, a renewable raw materials. As a natural resource, fluff pulp can be landfilled, incinerated, recycled or composted with few of the problems associated with man-made products

What lies ahead for the fluff pulp industry is difficult to determine. While superabsorbents have become more prevalent, growth into other areas is certainly possible. The sanitary protection market continues to segment and grow, offering an expanding line of products. The increasing demand for diapers in developing nations is creating a rising need for fluff pulp. And as adult incontinence products become a more accepted part of the life of the elderly, demand there too will increase. In general, "we are entering a significant era of transition for fluff pulp," said Mr. Bryja in summing up.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Rodman Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:environmental and cost factors considered by diaper manufacturers in production; includes related article on use of fluff pulp
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Diaper machinery manufacturers review.
Next Article:Private label sanitary products hold steady in competitive market.

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