Covering issues relevant to the entire supply chain, this year’s Dornbirn-MFC addressed some major challenges head on, writes managing editor Adrian Wilson.
More than 100 papers were presented to over 700 delegates at the 56th Dornbirn Manmade Fibers Conference which took place from September 13-15th and going forward is to be rebranded as the Global Fiber Conference Dornbirn.
Aims and themes
The rebranding reflects the more universal aims and themes of the conference, which now span the entire supply chain for nonwoven and textile-based products, with the circular economy and sustainability high on the agenda again this year. The involvement of consumer brands such as Adidas and Ikea, and of a key representative from the European Commission, only served to reinforce a broadened new outlook.
“Around the world, everyone knows the name Dornbirn, but there is confusion about the manmade fibres part of the name,” explained Robert van de Kerkhof, president of the conference organiser, the Austrian Fibers Institute, which similarly, was until recently known as The Austrian Manmade Fibers Institute. “We are concerned with addressing the needs of consumers globally, and charting supply chain issues from all fibre production to end-use. This rebranding reflects that.”
As CCO of the leading cellulosics fibre producer and key conference sponsor Lenzing AG, van de Kerkhoff noted that technical textiles and nonwovens are on course to reach global consumption of 42 million tons in 2020, when Asia will account for 33% and Europe 24% of the total. They will grow everywhere, at a CAGR of 9.2% in China and 3.1% in Asia overall. Europe’s growth is put at 2.4%, North America at 1.4% and the rest of the world at 5.3%.
“So everything’s encouraging, but is the situation really so rosy?” van de Kerkhoff asked. “Are today’s innovations creating the environmental problems of tomorrow? This was something we didn’t have to think about ten years ago when we were developing new products but it’s certainly informing everything we’re doing now. The textile industry has a dark side and is said to be the most polluting in the world after the oil industry. It’s something we have to be aware of.”
The production of viscose, he added as an example, should be sustainable, but emission rates from it are rising in Asia, according to the latest report, Dirty Fashion by the NGO the Changing Markets Foundation which highlights the damaging aspects of viscose production.
“Brands and retailers have the choice,” van de Kerkhoff said. “Can viscose be a clean fibre? The answer is yes, if we produce it right. Lenzing is fully committed to cleaning this up.”
He further cited the issue of hazardous chemicals highlighted by the Greenpeace Detox 2020 plan.
“When it was introduced, manufacturers said it was impossible to change, but after just a few years, the adoption of sustainable alternatives is proving remarkably successful,” he said. “As far as microplastics in the ocean are concerned, we are only now realising how much is in the oceans and what impact it’s having on marine life, and potentially on human health.”
The expansion of carbon fibre composites was another example given, carbon fibre being ideal for making cars and planes lighter, but at the same time, very wasteful to both produce and turn into components, as well as being extremely difficult to recycle.
“All along the value chain we have ways of avoiding wasteful processes and wasteful products and even though we at Lenzing only have a 1% share of the fibre market, we can make a difference,” van de Kerkhoff said. “Our mission is to turn CO2 and sunlight into functional, emotional and aesthetic products and sustainability is a core value. Our latest products like Refibra and EcoVera show that viscose can be sustainable, but we as leaders, can still improve. We’ve got to raise the bar and set higher targets. We don’t need to be dragged down by the bad players, let’s leave them behind.”
Cellulosic fibre manufacturers like Lenzing were doubtless cheered by the prescription for solving some of the world’s biggest problems going forward made by keynote speaker Professor Franz Josef Radermacher: “Reforestation. Millions and millions and millions of trees.”
Global population growth, he said, is the biggest challenge faced by the world and Europe’s sustainability agenda is incompatible with the desires of most of the rest of the world for economic development. Following China’s remarkable progress over the past 20 years, India is now attempting to achieve the same growth, and Africa will follow.
“Globally, many people are not in a comfortable position,” he said. “If we don’t take the right actions, the global population will be 12 billion by the end of this century. Since 2000, the world population has increased by 1.5 billion, adding three times the population of the European Union in 17 years. For most people, the issue of sustainability is not important – they want economic development and more comfortable lifestyles.”
What could be attempted, he suggested, was a “Marshall Plan with Africa”, in order to bring sustainable progress that is beneficial to all.
“The reforestation of a billion hectares of degraded land is achievable and would reap huge benefits, sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and at the same time creating millions of jobs. Timber must replace concrete,” he said.
This, he added, should be aligned with the cultivation of desert lands via desalinated water and renewable energies, and the development of new synthetic fuels.
“The solution is not biomass. It will not work. We need a new energy richness and new global governmental control of it.”
A more immediate issue which was the subject of much discussion in Dornbirn was the presence of microplastics in the oceans and in drinking water. This is an issue which has certainly struck an emotional chord with the general public and the media.
In a panel discussion on the subject, the general industry consensus was that studies were confusing and more information on the extent of the problem and the contribution of synthetic fibres to it was required.
Hugo Maria Schally, however, head of the European Commission’s directorate general for the environment, disagreed.
“We are not at the beginning at all, we are well into the formulation of response strategies,” he said. “With every study, the volumes only go up and with further study the problem will not go away. If things continue as they are there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050, so we need to turn plastic circular. We have to embed circularity into the designs of products and will still have to deal with materials that are not circular. Too much material is currently being incinerated and that’s certainly not circular. We are allowing too much value to be blown out of the chimneys and we can do better in Europe.”
There is a very high degree of public concern about microplastics, he added, and action will be required at EU level.
“The immediate action will be against microplastics in cosmetics, paints and detergents,” Schally said. “The issue of fibre shedding from clothing is more complex and there are a range of options we can consider. We expect the fibres industry to keep five steps ahead of us, and that way, we’ll never catch up.”
In robustly defending synthetics and their benefits, Heinz Meierkord of CIRFS, the synthetic fibres association, cited a few examples of what would be involved in even attempting to replace the synthetic fibres that are used today.
“Myths are often stronger than facts and can often guide political decisions,” he said, “such as the idea that natural fibres are better for the environment than synthetics. What about such issues as the availability of land, water use, energy use and the use of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides?”
In terms of land use, polyester requires just 0.003 hectares of building land in order to produce a ton of product, compared to 0.82 hectares of arable land for the production of a ton of cotton, and as much as 170 hectares of pasture land to produce a ton of wool from sheep.
To put this in context, to replace all of the 52 million tons of polyester fibre produced globally each year with natural fibres would require an additional free arable land mass the equivalent to Austria, Great Britain, Ireland and Moldova combined, Meierkord pointed out.
Further, to replace just the annual 1.9 million tons of acrylic fibre consumed globally with wool would require an area 6.5 times the size of France.
“Entire countries would have to disappear and their land be given over to cultivation,” Meierkord said. “Which nation wants to disappear to make this possible?
In considering water usage, the benefits of synthetics are even more apparent. To produce a ton of cotton requires an estimated 8,500 cubic metres of water, whereas a ton of virgin polyester takes only 0.9% of this, and recycled polyester 0.5%.
Meierkord used Lake Balaton in Hungary to make similar comparisons in terms of water usage.
Lake Balaton is central Europe’s largest lake, containing 1.9 cubic kilometres of water, and it would take 235 such lakes to be drained in order to produce the cotton to replace the 52 million tons of polyester currently produced annually, according to his calculations.
In addition, he added, cotton is responsible for 24% of the global usage of insecticides and 11% of pesticides, without even considering fertilizers.
“Human beings are emotional and respond to storytelling and we need to change our own narrative.”
When it comes to the issue of marine plastics and the general issue of degradation, however, cellulosic fibres without doubt offer clear advantages over synthetics.
Lenzing’s Dr Christian Weilach provided further details of the company’s latest Refibra project.
In general, he said, the recycling options for cellulosics are currently all mechanical, such as re-spinning or needlepunching. These processes, however, cause significant fibre degradation, making the fibres only suitable for being turned into low-grade nonwovens such as wipers and insulation, or shoddy
Refibra is a clean chemical solution based on turning cotton scraps into pulp and then feeding then into the closed loop Lyocell process to produce fibres that can have a much more valuable second life.
Certain chemicals are required to remove the dyes and other impurities in cotton waste to ensure the resulting fibre is entirely white and pure.
“There are considerable volumes of pre-consumer waste available and in general it’s a large batch of the same material we can work with,” Weilach said. “There are still, however, special characteristics to be considered, since cotton pulp is not the same as wood in terms of its molecular weight distribution, the lower content of hemi cellulose, a different fibre morphology, higher crystallinity and lower porosity.”
Establishing the Refibra programme, he said, has involved collaboration across what is a very fragmented textile value chain and required significant collaboration and transparency which is paramount for efficient recycling.
Lenzing has notably teamed up with Inditex, headquartered in Arteixo, Spain and one of the world’s biggest fashion groups, with 7,200 stores in 93 global markets worldwide.
Lenzing and Inditex are now working together to identify raw materials suitable for recycling prior to garment making, collect the waste during production, further develop logistics and supply chain and provide mutual feedback on how to improve processes.
“We are now planning to extend the loop for post-consumer waste but this is much more complex,” Weilach said. “There are labels, sewing yarns and elastics to be separated and you are always working with blends, and with no insights into the history of the mixed batches. Collaboration will certainly be the key to moving forward.”
Horst Wörner of Kelheim Fibres noted that hygienic disposables have also been found to be contributing to the marine litter problem, and that baby and household wipes have also been attracting unwanted headlines due to the incorrect disposal of those containing plastics.
The company’s Viloft-branded range of cellulosics is now being targeted at the wipes market and has also recently achieved the OK biodegradable MARINE certificate from Belgian certification body Vinçotte.
These speciality fibres have a flat cross section and short fibre length – two characteristics which benefit their ability to disintegrate quickly.
“Flushable Wipes made of our Viloft viscose fibres are highly dispersible and fully biodegradable and as such compatible with as well sewer infrastructure and the environment,” Wörner said. “They are a ready substitute for oil-based components in wipes and able to solve one area of the marine litter problem.”
A key takeaway from this year’s Dornbirn conference was that much more thought is now going into the design of products all along the textile value chain and biobased materials are increasingly finding new applications.
A good example is the work of the Bio4Self consortium, involving 15 European partners, which is developing bio-based recyclable, re-shapeable and repairable fibre-reinforced composites based on PLA.
“With the matrix and reinforcement both being the same material, such composites are easy to thermoform and recyclable,” said Lien van der Schueren, of Centexbel, the Belgian research organisation heading the project. “They will never get to the high stiffness of carbon, but there are still many end uses.”
Two processing routes have been explored, the first involving single polymer yarns with the melting portion on the outer surface. With this, however, there is only a very tight processing window, in terms of temperature. The use of a double polymer grade extends this window considerably, based on a commingled yarn of high and low melt. The stiffness can also be improved by the encouragement of nanofibril formation.
“PLA is sensitive to humidity and the project is now looking to improve performance and also to introduce functions such as self-sensing via carbon nanotubes, self-cleaning through the use of photocatalysts and self-healing via microcapsules,” van der Schueren said.
There were many more such intriguing developments it’s not possible to cover here. I will revisit this year’s Dornbirn conference in future articles in Sustainable Nonwovens.