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Sustainability in Nonwovens: In all manufacturing sectors sustainability is becoming inevitable but is particularly important when making disposables.

The concept of sustainability and its core elements called three pillars--Environment; Economic and Social--are well established over these last two decades. Sustainability is one of the most important aspects which everyone in the planet thinks of every time - whether producing a product, transporting a product, using a product, disposing a product, buying or consuming a product,. Whatever the stage of production, sustainability comes into picture due to the alarming environmental impacts which we have been experiencing in recent years mainly drastic climatic changes, extreme hot and cold weather, unpredictable weather fluctuations, scarcity of natural resources like energy and water and so on.

Sustainability is one of the core themes in the agenda of any government in the world as well as corporate companies. It is slowly becoming inevitable for the manufacturing sectors if they want to be a player in the market.

For various reasons, manufacturers have to follow the theme of sustainability such as producing a sustainable product, complying with the governmental regulations, reducing the cost of production by conserving inputs such as energy, water, chemicals, materials, waste, etc., (they have a bearing for environmental sustainability too), global/social responsibility, satisfying retailers and consumers' demands, fulfilling NGO's and other organizational demands and very importantly to be a competent player in the highly competitive market.

Every industrial sector is striving hard to be sustainable and there are umpteen numbers of attempts taken by various players in an industrial sector to deploy sustainable raw materials, sustainable manufacturing processes, conserve all the production inputs to the maximum possible extent, reduce waste, and so on.

The textile sector, which comprises various industrial segments such as wovens, knits, nonwovens, etc., is no exception to this, and the textile industry is striving very hard to be sustainable.

Various sustainability related concepts such as the 3R's (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), Cradle to Cradle, Zero liquid discharge, and Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC), zero waste in manufacturing, green manufacturing, low impact products, waterless products and carbon neutral products are becoming widely practiced in the textiles and clothing sector.

Apart from this, there are also various industrial attempts such as coalitions and collaborative efforts in harmonizing the assessments of environmental, and social impacts of the sector, etc., are also being quite popular in textiles sector.

Life Cycle Critical

The nonwovens sector is an indispensable sector of textiles and it produces various important and inevitable products for daily life. Sustainability can be discussed in any level and one of them is product level. When it comes to a product's sustainability, it goes hand in hand with a product's lifecycle stages. Assessing the environmental impacts in a product's entire life cycle stages (raw material acquisition stage, production or manufacturing stage, distribution or transportation stage, consumption stage - usage - and disposal stage) is crucial to reduce the environmental impacts of a product, which is called a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Product sustainability has to be balanced in the entire life cycle stages of a product. Ultimately a product has to be sustainable in its entire life cycle.

Products are designed for different shelf times when it comes to use and disposal like single use or multiple uses. There are a lot of arguments in concluding which product is the most sustainable - single use or multiple uses.

No one can simply give an answer to this except with the results of a systematic lifecycle assessment (LCA) study which encompasses all the life cycle stages of a product. Fast fashion and disposable products after single use are carefully considered in the sustainability conscious society. Here comes the important aspect of sustainability in the nonwovens sector as the nonwoven segment of textiles is mainly catering to the needs of throwaway society.

Solutions Galore

Practicing and producing sustainable products in various aspects such as deploying sustainable or green raw materials, utilizing sustainable or green energy inputs, employing sustainable auxiliaries, chemicals and other production inputs, consuming less water and obtaining water, energy and other inputs from renewable resources, reducing the amount of waste produced, reusing and recycling in the production processes, etc., are the need of the hour for the nonwovens sector as far as the production phase is concerned.

As a product, a nonwoven itself is sustainable in terms of its low manufacturing time with very quick production cycle. With a comparatively lower number of production processes to produce a product compared to competing products in the woven and knit categories,.it's certainly doable and it's the need of the hour for any manufacturing sector including nonwovens.

There are umpteen numbers of green or sustainable raw materials such as recycled fibers and also the use of green or sustainable chemicals. Also, many ways to make a nonwoven manufacturing line entirely green and sustainable exist. These include being less energy intensive, less water intensive, using energy and water from renewable resources, following 3R's in the production cycle, and more. There are many researchers working on these areas to attain sustainability in the textile sector, which can no doubt be used in the nonwovens sector as well. This is one side of the story in terms of sustainable nonwovens.

The other side of the story for sustainable nonwovens is related to the consumption and disposal stages. It's beyond anyone's doubt that reusable products are more sustainable than single use disposable products for many reasons addressing at least two pillars of sustainability - economic and environmental.

There is a wide range of activities and research needs to be done to make nonwoven products last longer rather than being disposed after single use. There is a great deal of research going on for many years to make reusable diapers for instance. There are many ways to make a nonwoven product durable and sustainable.

Making sustainable products by addressing all the three sides of sustainability - environment, economic and social - is always a challenge for every product including nonwovens and I am sure with stringent compliance and governmental regulations addressing social and environmental parts, continued research in sustainable production and consumer awareness and acceptability will take care of the economic part.

While discussing sustainability, one of the very main points is the market for such sustainable products. Like every other product, there is a wide interest for sustainable nonwoven products in the market, and with the increased consumer awareness, sustainable nonwoven products certainly find their place.

By Dr Subramanian Senthilkannan Muthu
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Title Annotation:Sustainable Solutions
Author:Muthu, Subramanian Senthilkannan
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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