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PET fibers get a second life

August 1st, 2013 / By: / Industry News, Sustainability

Recycled PET fibers are gaining a significant
foothold in the U.S. nonwovens industry.

The well-known U.K. environmental journalist George Monbiot has little time for recycling. In a recent column entitled “Let’s Stop Hiding Behind Recycling and Be Honest about Consumption” for the British newspaper The Guardian he deemed it, “the amulets people clasp in order not to see the clash between protecting the environment and rising consumption.” His point is that at a certain level, encouraging consumer recycling allows some people to believe they are “doing their bit”—and that this contribution will be sufficient.

At the same time, his observation somewhat casually undervalues the many initiatives that are being taken throughout industry, involving not only recycling raw materials, but also energy, water and waste. These measures are ultimately having a positive impact on consumption—regardless of whether the consumer is aware of them.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the nonwovens industry. It remains largely invisible to most people, yet these products are found everywhere in modern life, from disposable wipes and diapers to air and water filtration and on to the stabilization of roads and shorelines with geotextiles. In each area, nonwoven products are getting lighter and more efficient all the time—and a high level of recycled content is also being achieved.

Engineered for performance

In a notable development at the IDEA 2013 show, held in Miami Beach, Fla., April 23–25, Freudenberg & Co. KG (the world’s biggest manufacturer of nonwoven fabrics, headquartered in Germany) announced success in producing spunmelt filament fabrics with Unifi’s Repreve® recycled polyester (PET) fiber.

The nonwovens industry sometimes gives the impression of being far removed from the world of specialty and technical fabrics, and at shows such as IDEA this is reinforced by the presence of many plastics and resin manufacturers. There are also many complex, almost intimidating machines for the assembly of consumer disposables such as baby diapers. Nevertheless, there is an equal number of nonwoven fabric suppliers to a wide range of industrial markets with products engineered specifically towards high performance uses, moving into markets traditionally dominated by woven fabrics.

According to the latest statistics provided by INDA (the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics industry, based in Cary, N.C., organizer of the IDEA show) worldwide nonwovens production in 2012 was approximately 7.8 million tons—about 268 billion square meters—with a value of roughly $28.2 billion. With healthy growth rates of 6–8 percent, depending on the specific end-use sector, global production will hit 11.3 million tons by 2017, with a value of $39.2 billion.

Production ratios

While China now claims the lion’s share of the nonwovens market—in commodity products, at least—there is a much more balanced production ratio between North and South America, Europe and Asia than exists in the general textile industry.

North America’s own nonwovens production in 2012 was around 1.9 million tons, according to INDA, but it’s necessary to break this figure down by different technologies to get a clearer picture of the market. More than a million tons consists of spunmelt materials (in which resins are directly extruded from polymer granules in a manner similar to plastics), largely servicing the consumer hygiene markets. A further 250-300 tons are airlaid or wetlaid materials, with processes adapted from tissue and paper production respectively; while around 630,000 tons are carded staple fiber products, generally consolidated by mechanical needlepunching. It’s in this latter category that most of the recycled polyester has been employed in North America.

INDA has not yet calculated just what quantity of recycled fiber is being employed by the industry in North America, but there are already some significant players.

“There is a lot of polyester packaging sold in the U.S. and a lot of bottles that people now realize should be recycled rather than landfilled,” says INDA president Dave Rousse. “This high awareness, along with well-established recycling chains, makes a lot of PET chips available. So nonwoven fabric manufacturers have this lower cost material available to them, and use it by blending it with virgin resin to achieve the right performance property balance.”

Polyester producer DAK Americas, for example, based in Charlotte, N.C., has joined forces with carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries to create Clear Path Recycling LLC, an operation based in Fayetteville, N.C., for the production of recycled PET (known as rPET). The facility has the ability to recycle more than 160 million pounds of PET bottle annually—conserving, the company says, about half a million cubic yards of landfill space.

In a parallel development, DAK is also exploring ways to replace the monomers in its conventional PET production with bio-based feedstocks, since recycled fibers represent only one area in which more sustainable processing and products can be achieved.

Leaders in rPET

The largest manufacturer of recycled PET in Europe, meanwhile, is now part of the Thailand-headquartered fiber giant Indorama Group, along with many other smart small-to-medium fiber companies on both sides of the pond.

Indorama first entered the U.S. PET market in 2004, and in 2009 completed its AlphaPet plant in Alabama, which now has a capacity of some 438,000 tons. In 2010 the company purchased PET plants from Invista in Spartanburg, S.C. and Querétaro, Mexico, and following the acquisition of Wellman Intl. in 2011, also acquired FiberVisions®, a major polypropylene producer with plants in the U.S., Europe and China. A new PET polymer plant currently being planned for the U.S., to start in 2015, will take PET capacity in North America to 2.1 million tons for the company, which has increased its turnover by 50 percent each year for the past decade.

Some 2.2 billion recycled plastic bottles are employed to make Wellman’s fiber products each year in Ireland, and over the last 40 years the company has evolved to support multiple nonwoven markets, with significant penetration in recent years into the hygiene, semi-medical and industrial sectors. Fibers offered through Wellman’s Hygiene and Smart Fibre divisions demonstrate highly effective functionality and performance characteristics.

Wellman has also just announced a collaboration with Hologenix LLC, based in Santa Monica, Calif., as the exclusive producer of Celliant® staple fiber in Europe. Celliant is reported to harness the body’s natural energy through the use of minerals, and products containing the fiber have been clinically proven to increase blood flow and tissue oxygen levels and help balance temperature.

Carpet diversion

Another IDEA exhibitor, Leigh Fibers Inc., Wellford, S.C., has long been a leading processor of textile waste and fiber by-products, and in 2010 established a dedicated business unit for diverting discarded carpet and plastic from landfills and turning it into both fibers and a densified product used by plastics molders.

Leigh Carpet and Plastics Recycling now has the capacity to keep more than 100 million pounds a year of used carpet out of landfills—increasing the volume previously diverted in the U.S. by about one-third

“Every ton of carpet we can recycle saves 198 gallons of oil and prevents the emission of two metric tons of greenhouse gases,” says George Martin, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Leigh Fibers. “Our goal is to reduce the nearly six billion pounds of post-consumer carpet waste that goes into landfills each year, while giving customers the high-quality materials they need to make new products. Not many U.S. companies have the capability to separate the face fibers from the carpet backing and sort them by type, and fewer still can turn those fibers into agglomerate, ready for molders to use. We have the equipment and experience to do both.”

Brand development

Unifi, meanwhile, has built its Repreve recycled PET fiber into a highly successful brand, adopted by major clothing manufacturers including Dockers, The North Face, Levi’s, Macy’s and Polartec, in addition to Mohawk carpets and, perhaps most significantly, Ford automotive interiors.

As of May 13, the rapidly moving counter on the company’s website indicated that 228,243, 290 used PET bottles had already been converted into Repreve product in 2013.

The fiber’s introduction by Freudenberg at IDEA 13 in spunmelt form is significant for a number of reasons. First, the spunmelt production route opens up access to a much bigger market, as indicated by the INDA figures already quoted, although it is unlikely that Freudenberg’s new Lutradur® ECO with Repreve will find itself in diapers or other disposables. Instead, target markets include wall covering substrates, carpet backing, landscape and geotextile materials, coatings and other products, including applications within the automotive sector. Freudenberg has another product called Lutraflor®, a carpeting with a 100 percent polyester composite construction using a color-mastered staple fiber layer and a spunlaid nonwoven substrate. It has good abrasion resistance, a luxurious appearance and high recycled content. Most importantly, that combination of materials means no backing material, latex or otherwise, is required; it is also thermoformable, allowing auto makers to achieve considerable weight savings while simplifying construction methods.

Repreve fabrics are already widely used in auto interiors, most notably by Ford, and if Freudenberg can now successfully combine Lutraflor’s properties with Repreve, it will most likely have a winner on its hands—and another wedge into the performance textiles markets in the U.S.

Adrian Wilson is an analyst, writer and editor specializing in the technical textiles, nonwovens and composites industries. He is currently the editor of Sustainable Nonwovens (MCL Communications) and Smart Textiles and Nanotechnology (International Newsletters).

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