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Geotextiles: opportunities for natural-fibre products.


The size of the world market for geotextiles has been estimated at around 700 million square metres annually, according to a new ITC study. Demand for geotextiles has gone up extremely rapidly over the last two decades, with sales confined mainly to the industrialized countries. If similar increases in demand take place in the markets of developing countries, a further expansion in consumption can be expected. Moreover the growing concern for environmental protection in all countries should provide an additional impetus to sales of these products on the international market.

Although synthetic fabrics currently account for about 98% of the geotextile market, natural fibre-based geotextiles should have good possibilities for increasing their share in the future. Natural fibre-based geotextiles have certain advantages over their synthetic competitors that should help them strengthen their market position. Research and development activities will be necessary to improve the marketability of the natural product in some respects, but the basic raw material and technology for such products are relatively inexpensive and easily available in a number of developing countries. Exporters in these countries should therefore study this market carefully because of the attractive sales openings that are expected to arise.

Types of geotextiles

Geotextiles are thin, permeable materials used primarily in civil engineering to improve the structural performance of soil and of works such as road pavements. These fabrics are also applied increasingly for specific functions in the agricultural sector.

At present the geotextile market is dominated by synthetic materials. They are usually produced from polypropylene, although polyethylene and polyester geotextiles are also common. Natural fibres are used to a much lesser extent, but their potential in such applications is promising. These fibres include jute, kenaf, coir, cotton, sisal and ramie. Other natural materials such as palm leaf, wood and split bamboo also have geotechnical applications.

In general terms, geotextiles can be divided into two main categories, woven and nonwoven, although a number of specialty products such as geogrids, geocomposits and geonets are appearing on the market in increasing quantities.

Both woven and nonwoven geotextiles are used successfully in a variety of applications. Nonwovens, however, are predominant in the markets for drainage, lining systems and asphalt overlay fabric. Wovens are the most frequent form of geotextile for soil stabilization and separation, sub-grade and base reinforcement, and silt fences.

A majority of the geotextiles on the market are comparatively simple fabrics. Approximately 75% are nonwoven and take the form of heat-bonded continuous filament or needle-punched filament or staple, made of synthetic polymers. These are relatively lightweight fabrics weighing from 120 gm. to 250 gm. per sq. m. Some heavier weight needle-punched fabrics, up to about 650 gm. per sq. m., are used for specific applications such as railroad ballast underlay and canal revetment filters.

Woven fabrics hold about 15% of the market and range from inexpensive lightweight woven slit polypropylene film to complex multifilament polyester yarn fabrics weighing up to 2,000 gm. per sq. m.

The remaining 10% or so of the market is accounted for by geogrids, geonets and erosion control mats, a sector in which natural-fibre geotextiles could have a competitive edge.

Applications of the natural product

Geotextiles made of natural fibres can compete with synthetic material in many applications because of their lower price, "environment-friendly" character and technical properties.

The differing characteristics of the various natural fibres used in geotextiles make certain types more suitable than others in specific applications. For instance, geotextiles made of softer fibres such as jute may have a shorter lifetime than fabrics made of hard fibres such as coir because of a difference in their biodegradable properties. The latter may be more appropriate when longer term utilization is called for. (Jute fabric can, however, be covered with bitumen, which prolongs the lifetime of the geotextile considerably.)

Natural-fibre geotextiles are considered particularly appropriate where soil surfaces need to be stabilized and protected from erosion. Jute geotextiles, for instance, have been the subject of extensive experimentation and research for erosion control on various kinds of surfaces and slopes. They are among the natural-fibre geotextiles with potential on the market. Jute nets and meshes for erosion control consist of a heavy, woven matting made of 100% jute yarn.

Jute's advantages for this end-use include its relatively rapid biodegradability (in about two years). This allows the right amount of time for slopes that have been topsoiled and seeded to develop a stand of vegetation. The decomposing jute fibres assist in retaining moisture. Jute's capacity to absorb water makes it considerably more effective than synthetic erosiqon control mats. The "drapability" of jute fabric along the contours of a slope helps slow down the water flow, also giving it an advantage over synthetic materials. Decomposed jute material, which is rich in soil nutrients, is of considerable value in the ecological cycle. Other advantages of jute over synthetic materials are the simplicity and ease with which it can be laid (neither skilled labour nor special tools are required) and the lack of maintenance problems that go with most geosynthetics.

Jute geotextiles can be used effectively in a variety of erosion-control situations. These include road and railway slopes, bridge abutments and median strips; drainage ditches, and culvert and table drain outlets; lake, canal and river banks; farm and forestry areas; landscaping in parks, airports and residential areas; slag heap reclamation; and ski-slope and sports-field restoration.

In addition to erosion-control applications, jute is suitable for asphalt overlays, fabriform and wickdrains. Asphalt overlaps are used to resurface cracked highway pavements. Fabriform is the use of fabrics to contain wet concrete in a desired shape. Wickdrains are strips of absorbent water-conducting material, inserted vertically into soft soils to accelerate water drainage.

In the case of coir geotextiles, experiments conducted in Germany, Australia and India have shown that suitable applications include erosion control of slopes along highways, railways, irrigation canals and rivers; erosion control at water-storage sites; revegetation of batters, median strips and embankments; stabilization of sand dunes; lining of ditches and drains; weed control; retention of moisture around ornamental shrubs; and other landscaping functions. In Austria and Switzerland coir mesh has been used with positive results on ski slopes, for high-altitude erosion control.

Among the particular advantages of coir as a geotextile are its high resistance to rotting; its constant tensile strength under dry, wet and frozen conditions; its ability to act as an insulating material; and its capability of withstanding high-velocity water flow (because of its thickly woven strands). Unbleached woven coir fabric is especially suited to erosion control of steep overland drainage sites, as it is more permeable than the soil that it protects and at the same time provides sufficient bulk to impede rapid water flow.

Rising demand

The growth in the consumption of geotextiles in the industrialized countries has been phenomenal during the last two decades, as mentioned above. From a mere 10.2 million sq. m. sold on these markets in 1970, purchases of geotextiles increased to 110 million sq. m. in 1980 and to an estimated 700 million sq. m. in 1990. Many experts predict that the boom in the geotextile market will continue throughout the end of this decade. Some forecasts put consumption at a level of 1.4 billion sq. m. by the year 2000.

Demand for geotextiles is presently concentrated in Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. The three regions each account for about one-third of global consumption. A vast untapped market for geotextiles exists in many African, South American and Asian developing countries. The same applies to East European countries. The extensive area of these regions and the potential for erosion-control operations are factors underlying the favourable market prospects for these regions.

Suppliers of natural-fibre geotextiles in developing countries may face less competition from producers of synthetic geotextiles in these unexploited markets than in the industrialized markets. In some of the producing countries, for example in Asia, manufacturers could possibly develop sales of natural-fibre geotextiles to the domestic market first, thereby establishing a firm manufacturing base, and then start exporting.

Europe: Among the major European markets for geotextiles are the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Other countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, are also potential outlets, as they include substantial semi-arid areas that could require rehabilitation. The prospects for geotextiles and jute in particular in five major West European markets are outlined below.

* France: Since the 1960s France has played a pioneering role in the development of geotextiles. Today it has an extensive production base and an equally large and growing demand for these products. Geogrids, however, which have established substantial usage in certain other countries, for instance Germany, have not made much headway in the French market.

The widespread construction activity in the country, in both the public and private sectors, is increasing the demand for geotextiles. Road and housing construction are particularly attractive growth areas. The environmental sector is also expected to become a major outlet in the future.

In the case of jute geotextiles, the market for erosion-control fabric in France is appreciable, focused mainly on the private sector, thereby offering good possibilities for this fabric. Some demand also exists in the retail sector, in the form of small consumer packs sold in supermarkets, hardware stores and nurseries.

* Germany: German consumption of geotextiles has increased rapidly during the last several years. At present, the annual growth rate of sales is about 20%. The booming construction industry in the country has resulted in high demand for these products. Some of the growth sectors of this industry have been airports, waterways and ports, roads, rail networks and housing. The strongest demand for geotextiles and the best potential for sales in the future is, however, in the environmental sector, particularly for activities such as waste-water treatment and solid-waste collection and treatment. The prospects for construction and environmental protection applications of geotextiles should be particularly good in the eastern part of the country.

Imports account for nearly 40% of German geotextile consumption. Foreign sources are mainly Austria, France, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Geogrids come from the United Kingdom and geomembranes from the United States.

Several public authorities in Germany have published rules for the use of geotextiles, including the road and rail authorities.

* Italy: Demand for geotextiles has expanded at a fast pace in Italy during the last few years, and this trend is expected to continue. Environmental applications in particular, such as waste management and landfill, are generating increasing sales of these products. The other growth sectors are transport, including use for road, rail, waterway and airport applications, and housing construction. The large investments planned by the Government in the southern part of the country may lead to more extensive construction activities and even wider use of geotextiles.

Italy is a net importer of geotextiles. Most of these imports come from other European countries, among which are Austria, France and the Netherlands. A number of companies in the country produce various types of industrial textiles, including geotextiles.

An experiment in high-altitude erosion control using jute geotextiles was started several years ago in the Italian Alps and has shown highly favourable results. This market sector has already been tapped to some extent, but further sales openings should arise. A much larger potential market for jute geotextiles exists in the plains of Italy for soil-erosion control. A third and smaller market sector for this product in Italy is for covering the surface of landfill. Finally, particularly bright prospects exist in the retail market if jute geotextiles can be supplied in small consumer packs for sale to gardeners through do-it-yourself shops, hardware chains, nurseries and department stores. At least two manufacturers of synthetic geotextiles are already in the retail market with consumer packs for similar applications.

* Switzerland: Consumption of geotextiles is likewise expanding in Switzerland. The growth sectors are transport, particularly road construction and maintenance, and environmental protection. Geotextiles, including those of jute, are also used in erosion control and slope stabilization operations. Commercial use of jute geotextiles for these latter two applications started in Switzerland nearly a decade ago. A Swiss company was the first European firm to market and promote jute textiles, under the name of "soil-savers." A number of geotextile manufacturers exist in Switzerland. These products are also imported, mainly from other European countries.

For exporters of jute geotextiles, the Swiss market has a tradition in the use of this product in a variety of applications and also has well established marketing channels for it. Considerable possibilities exist for jute geotextiles as an erosion-control material on road and railway slopes and around lakes, along canals and on river banks. Another major potential area is the ski resorts in the Alps, where jute could be successfully utilized for high-altitude erosion control. Gardening is still another sector in which jute material has good prospects in the Swiss market. The product should, however, be marketed in convenient consumer packs through the types of retail outlets mentioned above.

* United Kingdom: As in the other major European markets, consumption of geotextiles in the United Kingdom has been mounting rapidly. This country was one of the first in Europe to use geotextiles on a large scale. Growth sectors for these materials have been transport, including the building and maintenance of roads, railways, waterways and airports; housing construction; and environmental applications. The United Kingdom is a major producer of geotextiles. One of its firms hold a predominant position in the global market for geogrids.

Demand for jute geotextiles in industrial and retail sectors has gone up over the last several years, following the general rising trend of geotextile sales. Jute geotextiles are supplied by a number of companies, whose main line of products is usually synthetic geotextiles, but who sell jute fabrics as well for suitable applications. A few of the trading houses that deal in other types of jute goods such as sacks and carpet-backing cloth have also started trading in jute geotextiles.

The United Kingdom offers good prospects for selling jute geotextiles in small consumer packs for gardening purposes (erosion control and drainage applications). Synthetic mats have already entered the retail market in consumer packs for such applications.

United States: According to the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), woven and nonwoven geotextiles accounted for 25% and 70% respectively of the U.S. geotextile market in 1989. The remaining 5% of the market was held by specialty products.

The principal end-use for geotextiles in the United States is in asphalt overlay, accounting for about one-third of geotextile sales. According to IFAI estimates, demand in this sector should continue to grow during the 1990s, but the rate may be slower than in the past. (In Europe, asphalt overlay fabrics are not yet used to the same extent as in the United States, which is the result, in part, of different road structures. A considerable increase in this application is, however, expected in Europe in the future.)

Other shares of the U.S. geotextile market by end-use are approximately 29% for separation and stabilization purposes, 13% for drainage applications, 9% for lining systems, 6% for reinforcement, 5% for erosion control and 5% for silt fences.

Marketing channels

Because geotextiles are technical construction materials, their marketing and distribution is linked to a large extent with specialist engineers, who "specify" the use of a particular geotextile material based on its suitability for the intended application. Although a small volume of geotextiles is sold directly to retail buyers, the marketing and distribution of the major portion of such products takes place according to the pattern on the chart on page 13.

Client: The "client" for geotextiles on the chart is the construction supervisor. He is not usually the direct buyer of the product but rather the person responsible for the construction work in which the geotextile is to be used.

The client may be a government or business entity. In the public sector, examples are ministries or departments dealing with energy, environment, trade, industry or transport; regional and local authorities concerned with public works; and state-owned industries and transport systems. In the business sector the client may be a developer; an industrial or commercial company; or an individual undertaking construction work on personal property.

In the construction industry, the client usually engages an outside consultant, a "specialist consulting engineer," to make a detailed technical design and profile for the construction job to be carried out and to specify the material and equipment to be used in it. The job is then handed over to one or more contractors, who may decide to subcontract various portions of the work to other companies. The contractor or the subcontractor then buys the materials, as specified by the consultant, from the manufacturer, his agent, a distributor or an importer. In large public undertakings the client organization sometimes has its own in-house engineers and experts, who carry out the job of the consultant designer and specifier. The client organization may also have an in-house construction department, possibly subcontracting some elements to outside agencies.

For the supplier of geotextiles, the client is an important entity, even when "specifying" and "buying" are handled by an outside firm.

Consultant: This person, as mentioned above, is the "specifier" of the product. The consultant may be an individual operating on his own, a member of a consultancy firm, a member of a company offering both consultancy services and construction contracts as a package deal, a person working in a manufacturing company who can offer technical guidance on the use of the company's product or an in-house technical department in the client organization.

Although the consultant does not buy the product, it is his specification that determines whether a geotextile is used and which type of geotextile is required. The marketing effort of a geotextile exporter therefore begins with the consultant. In the case of a product such as jute geotextiles, the main task is to convince the specifier of the suitability and advantages of the product in a particular application. Thereafter, selling depends on price competitiveness and the processing and packaging of the product (to facilitate correct installation).

Contractor and subcontractor: These persons are the direct buyer and user of the product. They may be responsible for executing all or part of a construction project. They may also offer specialized consultancy services to be client.

Although on the chart the contractor and the subcontractor are shown in two different stages of the process, in practice they may be more closely interrelated. For a large project, the company that gets all or part of the construction contract invariably subcontracts some or most of the components of the work to other firms. The buyers of construction materials, including geotextiles, are mostly small and medium-size contractors.

Although the contractor is supposed to purchase only what is specified by the consultant, in practice he may have a much larger degree of freedom in choosing a particular product and a specific supplier. The criteria of price competitiveness, appropriate supply schedules, and packaging and presentation that are convenient to the applicator influence the purchase of a particular geotextile by a contractor. The contractor or subcontractor is the last but crucial stage in the marketing process for geotextiles.

Intermediaries: Agents, distributors and importers make the final sale of the product to the applicator, that is, to the contractor or the subcontractor. Some of them are also involved in manufacturing and processing geotextiles and are in a position to offer technical advice to the clients and contractors on the application of their products. In addition, some carry out market promotion for these items.

Retail market for small buyers

The retail market for geotextiles for small individual buyers is still relatively limited compared with the conventional channel of client-consultant-contractor for industrial use. Yet it is substantial enough for some large geotextile manufacturers to produce a standard line of small consumer packs containing mainly low-tech and cheaper synthetic geotextiles. These packs are sometimes available in hardware stores, nurseries, do-it-yourself shops and large department stores. Purchasers of these products are generally persons interested in gardening, as mentioned above.

From a technical point of view, jute should be a suitable geotextile for the buyers of consumer packs. However, its introduction in the retail market in Europe to any great extent will require considerable investment in packaging, processing of the product, provision of accessories and so on. Some promotional activity such as store campaigns and advertisements in gardening and farming journals would also be needed to stimulate sales.

A.K. Sen Gupta was formerly Executive Director of the Office for Europe of the Jute Manufacturers Development Council of India. This article is based on an ITC survey that he recently prepared on geotextiles with particular reference to jute geotextiles.

PHOTO: Natural-fibre geotextiles can be used to stabilize soil surfaces, for instance in landscaping.

PHOTO : Strands of newly harvested jute are hung in the sun to dry on a jute plantation.

PHOTO : Above jute geotextiles being used to control erosion along the banks of a stream.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Trade Centre UNCTAD/GATT
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gupta, A.K. Sen
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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