Health care and medicine, in particular, have a growing need of disposable hygiene products, such as face masks. Products made of nonwovens are everywhere around us. Nearly 80 percent of nonwovens are made of oil-based, that is, fossil raw materials that are non-renewable.
Consumers are increasingly aware of environmental issues, and the EU has adopted a directive restricting the use of single-use plastic products (the SUP directive). This creates a demand for nonwovens made of renewable raw materials. The face masks used today, for example, cannot be recycled after use, except by burning for energy.
The Future of Nonwovens (FoN) project strives to respond to the demand. Coordinated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the project has the goal of replacing at least half of the oil-based nonwovens produced in Europe and the USA with bio-based solutions.
The project brings together all Finnish manufacturers of nonwovens, including Suominen, Anpap, Valmet, Fortum, Metsä Spring, CH Polymers, UPM and Infinited Fiber Company. The project covers the entire value chain from raw material to finished nonwoven.
’We have at our disposal all necessary industrial know-how,’ says Mika Nikinmaa, Head of R&D at Suominen.
The FoN project uses softwood pulp and innovative cellulose-based textile fibres to develop nonwoven textile materials that are biodegradable and compostable. Recycled textiles, such as t-shirts and jeans, can also be used as raw material.
The project also aims to develop air-laying as a method of manufacturing sustainable nonwovens and fibre composites. In paper manufacturing, for example, the web starting at the wet end of a paper machine is a mixture of water and fibres that is gradually dried in the machine to form paper. In air-laying, the fibre mass is mixed and formed into a web by means of an air stream.
’Air-laying needs no water, so no energy is needed for drying,’ says Senior Scientist Taina Kamppuri at VTT.
’We are also studying the use of bio-based chemicals as binders,’ Kamppuri continues.
The market of responsibly produced nonwovens is expanding rapidly, by 10 to 11 percent a year. As the Finnish nonwoven industry is reconfigured with the FoN project, it is estimated that exports from Finland will increase by EUR 1,2 thousand million by 2030.