Consumers encounter nonwoven materials everyday, as they are used in making their clothes, facemasks, cosmetics wipes, and reusable bags. The popularity of this material owes to its simplicity. Nonwovens are a textile type made from short and long fibres mashed together to bind into a pliable surface. Felt is one of the oldest and simplest examples of a nonwoven fabric but the last fifty years have seen an explosion in different types of this material.1
The fibres in nonwovens stick together, thanks to one of three manufacturing processes: chemical bonding, heat treatment, or mechanical pressing. Since their fibres are not held together by intricate woven or knitted patterns, nonwovens have certain physical advantages that make them ideal in certain applications.
Another physical characteristic driving the popularity of nonwovens is their lightness. As packaging, for example, they are both less voluminous and heavy than woven or knit fabrics, offering comparatively more efficient storage and a reduction in transportation fuel costs.
Nonwovens also protect their contents well from microorganisms. One study from back in 2015 even showed that using nonwoven fabrics compared to woven fabrics reduced the proportion of packaged operating instruments that had to be resterilised after storage.3 This cheap, light material is therefore the default option for protective clothing in healthcare, medicine, and emergency services.
Historically, nonwovens in apparel were limited to their function as a reinforcing layer inside interlinings for collars and cuffs. Over time, the fashion applications of nonwovens widened from rigid internal lining and migrated to make up outer portions of apparel. Now, although apparel manufacturers still use it to add stiffness and shape-retention, they also use it to create the front linings of coats.
Driving this trend for using nonwovens in outer layers of clothing were technological advances, particularly the development of types with superior flexibility such as Evolon, Miratec from US company PGI, and Inova from DuPont.4
The lightness, flexibility and insulation provided by modern nonwovens make them an ideal component in all types of clothing applications, but they are particularly suited for sportswear and outdoor performance apparel.5 One good example of a nonwoven material for heavy-duty wear is DuPont’s Tyvek, which gives an outer layer that is water and windproof.
Many companies that supply nonwovens for clothing applications also offer product lines for other sectors and uses. Freudenberg Performance Materials, for example, is one of the biggest manufacturers of this textile type. Alongside nonwovens for clothing and shoes, it produces the material for use as building materials, filtration, hygiene, and medical equipment.6
Role of the Pandemic in Pushing Demand
The COVID-19 pandemic gave huge stimulus for the nonwoven industry. From 2019 onwards came huge global demand for sterilised consumer goods in hygiene, medical personal protective equipment (PPE), and personal care. Lightweight, cheap to produce, and disposable, nonwovens are ideally suited for these applications.
Wipes became the biggest demand application for the nonwoven industry starting in 2019.7 Of course, nonwoven PPE was high in demand too, so much so that some textile companies repurposed existing manufacturing lines to make more medical materials and face masks.
However, the pandemic demand also exacerbated and highlighted problems of waste and environmental pollution associated with this multi-purpose material.
Because nonwoven fabrics have a comparatively shorter lifespan than knitted or woven materials, they are often destined for single-use applications, hygiene and medical dressings, packaging, and PPE.
The sustainability concerns around the material sharpened focus over the pandemic. Hospitals generally output a huge amount of waste in medical textiles as a matter of course but this only heightened from 2020 onwards.9
Although disposable equipment in healthcare is essential to preventing infections, many now want to address the mounting problem of waste with biodegradable alternatives.
There is great scope for a biodegradable nonwoven industry. Nonwovens can be made from a huge diversity of fibres, including those from organic feedstock. Organic feedstocks for nonwoven fibres now range from more novel options like chitin – a compound found in the shells of sea creatures – to cotton. These biodegradable options offer a viable alternative to petrochemical fibres. Benost is one of the early commercialisers of chitin-based nonwovens.
Yet biodegradable nonwovens remain relative newcomers in an industry dominated by cheap and readily available petrochemical plastic fibres. Around 66 per cent of material use in nonwovens is synthetic.10 This is why most nonwoven items on the market today will not breakdown readily or safely in the environment.
Unlike in medical applications, clothing applications of nonwovens tend not to be single use. Indeed, nonwoven material in clothing is usually integral to the durability of the clothing item.
Nonetheless, there is now a general drive within fashion to replace petrochemical nonwovens with greener substitutes. Questions around the use of synthetic nonwoven in clothing track a broader trend to replace fossil oil materials like polyester, polypropylene, polyamide (nylon), and rayon with more sustainable materials.
Renewable Nonwovens: Plant-based is not Necessarily Greener
In some regions at least, a broader shift towards renewable nonwovens looks plausible. For example, the textiles industry is finding itself having to respond to policy moves such as the European Union Single Use Plastic directives by looking into bio-based and recycled alternatives.
Manufacturers that traditionally sold only petrochemical nonwoven products are already diversifying into greener ranges. Mogul, a Turkish producer, extended its sustainable line in 2022 by offering renewable and biobased nonwovens, including a 100 per cent bio-based polyester that reaches 93.8 per cent biodegradation in 646 days in an accelerated landfill environment.11
However, just because nonwoven fibres are plant-based does not always mean they are greener from either a carbon or environmental waste perspective. Even though some nonwovens today use the fibres of bio-based plastics, most of the bio-plastics on the market today degrade under very specific industrial conditions offered at custom recycling plants.
NatureWORKS’ PLA Ingeo fibre falls into this category, being bio-based but non-readily biodegradable in the natural environment. Although derived from corn maize, this material is still a polymer whose chemical structure closely resembles those of ordinary polyester or polypropylene polymers.
Recycled and Compostable Options Emerging
Yet there is room for improving the carbon profile of synthetic nonwovens. Even where nonwovens are made from petrochemical-based fibres, they can derive from recycled plastics. Again, Mogul has made headway in this area. It announced in 2022 that it would be using a branded textile called Repreve by Unifi made from polyester waste like plastic bottles. Currently in Europe, over 30 per cent of all polyester fibre used is from recycled materials, meaning there is a relatively accessible supply chain for other nonwoven manufacturers to make the switch.12
Meanwhile, smaller startups are pioneering fully compostable nonwoven materials. Bast Fibre Tech produces 100 per cent plant-based natural fibres ready for nonwoven applications that are fully compostable, using such feedstock as hemp, jute, and kenaf.13
Partnerships between specialised bio-based startups and larger players are also emerging in this space, such as the joint venture between global packaging and recycling company ALPLA Group and Blue Ocean Closures, a Swedish startup developing natural fibre-based closures.
Fashion’s drive to move away from petrochemicals looks likely to stay. Combined with increasing demand for sustainable materials in other major nonwoven sectors like construction and medical care, the greatest challenge going ahead will be cutting the carbon footprint of this ubiquitous material by switching to organic feedstocks.
Already, established nonwoven manufacturers are showing growing interest in bio-based versions. This tracks the rise of bio-based plastics more broadly, which is expected to grow at a CAGR rate of 14 per cent between 2022 and 2027.14 However, bio-based nonwovens start from a much smaller market share, meaning that it has a lot of catching up to do to replace fossil derivatives.
Demand for renewable nonwovens will depend on the wider pace of bio-plastics scaling. This will be critical for supplying nonwoven textile makers with cheaper inputs that will enable price competitive green products.
- https://pdf.sciencedirectassets.com/778509/1-s2.0-S0255085715X33020/1-s2.0-S0255085721002504/main.pdf? b