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Recofluff: can recycled fiber deflect consumer hostility?

Recofluff: Can Recycled Fiber Deflect Consumer Hostility?

In the past couple of years everyone has become aware of the public's interest in disposability and single use products. Surely there have been enough speeches on the need for our industry to address the question.

The industry has reacted, more or less successfully, to consumer dissatisfaction with countless position papers and strong lobbying efforts to discourage legislative attempts to ban or tax the products of our industry. To date the industry has also done a good job in stressing the unfavorable aspect of legislated solutions and should be congratulated for its prompt action in organizing resistance to the absurd, simplistic solutions that the public and some uninformed politicians are attempting to make.

Less encouraging, however, is how much real progress is actually being made in solving the solid waste problem. Manufacturers move too slowly to support really challenging progress addressing implementation of the consumer's strong desire to do some "recycling," whatever that means.

Of course, it is not so surprising that the manufacturers of today's disposable products prefer that the solid waste problem and its impact on business would just go away. There is a general feeling that discussion of negative aspects of their products should be minimized to the extent possible. It is certainly true that incorrect information or biased information is often widely circulated by so-called "unbiased experts" on both sides who, in reality, are grinding some axe or another and who are operating without real data.

Of course, everyone would prefer no change in manufacturing, selling or in the design of the products. Material suppliers also dislike rapid change in raw material sources or in any outside demands being placed on the way they do business.

As a result of these and other factors, much industry effort has been focused on producing authoritative studies showing environmental and energy impacts on cloth versus disposables and also on advocating reliance on composting methods as an alternative to changing the products in a major way or reducing disposable usage in favor of reusables. While composting is viable and appropriate, very few communities actually have such facilities. So, as a practical matter in the near term, composting will not make a significant impact.

Is The Answer Using Recycled Materials?

Instead of hoping that the public focus on the issue will go away or that the impact of the solid waste issue can be deflected, it might well be best to be a little bit more aggressive in using recycled materials to make the disposables in the first place. This has not happened yet in, for instance, the baby diaper business, where disposable diapers have become a lightening rod for consumer displeasure at not being able to recycle.

In all fairness, it is true to say that there have been some good efforts to start disposable diaper material recycling by advocating disposable diaper collection and recovery projects that can reclaim the materials for reuse. These programs have shown some promise, but again facilities are not widely available and there are technical difficulties, unfavorable energy costs and other environmental impacts associated with some of these concepts.

So there remains a need to do something about solving the solid waste problem from a product point of view on more than one front. There have been some efforts made by some of the involved companies, but these have not yet been fully developed and have only recently found a constituency.

Another aspect of the dilemma is that some of the smaller manufacturers have attempted to exploit the perceptions of the public on the solid waste question by offering "gimmick type" solutions to the disposability question. These efforts, in general, have not been very successful and have certainly not been helpful to the industry as a whole. Still, it is clear that consumers desire progress in this area.

There is a dedicated potential constituency for "green" products, whatever they are. Against this rather discouraging backdrop, there appear to be some very possible benefits to taking a more progressive role in forwarding products made from post-consumer fiber materials as a way to appeal to the consumer while making money.

Recycling and composting are the public's preferred methods of dealing with solid waste. Even though incineration is probably a better alternative for many parts of the solid waste stream, it is not mentioned as an alternative by many consumer advocacy groups.

Post-Consumer Fiber Fluff Pulp

The largest single component in disposable diapers is fluff pulp. Normally, a baby diaper contains about 40 grams of woodpulp fiber and tissue. If at least some recovered post-consumer woodpulp fiber can be incorporated successfully into a new generation of disposable products, it would go a long way towards relieving criticism of the industry's contribution to the solid waste crisis. A new multi-client research project aims to determine the viability of using certain upgraded post-consumer waste paper fiber as a partial substitute for virgin fluff pulp in absorbent products such as baby diapers, adult incontinence products, feminine hygiene items and air laid towels and wipes.

There are, of course, many problems in using post-consumer recycled fiber as a substitute for pure virgin roll pulp in high quality disposables, not the least of which are collection of proper quality post-consumer contaminates and processability on commercial lines. Fluff pulps are difficult to make and have lofty quality standards that are not easy to duplicate without the best available fiber. On the positive side, if successful, the use of recycled fiber could also drastically reduce the overall materials cost of a typical diaper.

Grades of post-consumer fiber are going to be available in abundance at minimal cost against the $700 a ton for virgin fluff pulp currently. Most post-consumer grades are not suitable for fluff pulp due to coatings, fillers, short fiber, high degrees of sizing and wet strength and variable quality. Roughly one million metric tons a year of fluff pulp are consumed in the U.S., so the potential market is substantial for any successful grade that could be developed.

To be successful, a number of important pulp quality considerations must be fully explored, including quantifying the following issues for waste fiber pulps:

* Breakdown of the fiber length under commercial defibration conditions

* Development of nits

* Development of dust

* Optimization of hammermill processing conditions for shorter fiber lengths found in most post-consumer waste papers

* Wet web integrity

* Compressability and resilience of the absorbent core

* Acquisition rate, absorbent capacity and holding power of the absorbent core


* Brightness and dirt count

* Performance of the fiber in blends with virgin fluff pulp

* Performance of the fiber alone and in blends of virgin fluff pulp using superabsorbent polymers of various types

* Defibration energy requirements

* Cost and commercial viability

The scope of an on-going research project is rather substantial and covers all of the above issues on six grades of waste fiber that will be available in appropriate commercial quantities. The project involves processing candidate pulps with different screen sizes and hammermill main rotor speeds to allow prediction of fluff pad physical properties under commercial processing conditions. This is important because each grade of fluff pulp offered by the various producers has different optimum hammermill settings for that pulp and physical test properties achieved vary greatly depending on the main rotor speed, feed rate and screen size combination used and whether it is optimized for that particular pulp.

Various percentage blends of chemically treated fiber are being made into sheets and processed into fluff pads using the Kamus laboratory hammermill. A key aspect of this study is developing parameters for optimum hammermill settings for using wastepaper pulps by varying the screen sizes and rotor speeds used to process the test materials. It is expected that waste paper will require different screen sizes and different rotor speeds than are commonly used in the industry for handling virgin pulp.

The Importance Of Hammermilling

Various percentage blends of waste paper will be used to determine how much of each grade can be tolerated in a commercial diaper product. All samples for testing physical properties of fluff pads are made to a density typical of today's diaper designs and two different but typical superabsorbents will be used for blending with the pulps to assess the performance of prototype diaper cores.

The test results shown in Table 1 are not meant to illustrate the best that can be done with post-consumer fiber; instead, they represent the type of data being assembled.

[Tabular Data Omitted]

The examples point out the importance of hammermilling conditions and chemical treatment selection. Generally, the best fluff pulp made from virgin fiber comes from highly bleached, extractive-free, Southern pine pulp without debonders. Fluff pulp grades require special treatment during the papermaking process to insure that they are not overly bonded. In most cases, papermakers with waste paper recycling capabilities are unfamiliar with the technical properties of proper fluff pulp grades. Those fluff pulp producers based on virgin fiber stock seldom have a proper system for incorporating waste paper into the furnish. Nor do they have a desire to do so.

Actually, however, there is great potential for small papermaking operations to produce viable fluff pulps even from 100% recycled grades if proper selection of starting materials and treatment with correct chemistry and papermaking is developed. The post-consumer computer paper example that is shown in Table 1 on this page is by no means an optimum fiber for fluff pulp since it is based primarily on short mechanical type fiber with only small amounts of long fiber.
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Title Annotation:possibilities for the use of recycled fibers
Author:Hanson, James P.
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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