Friday 21 September 2007

Wipes and Femcare Trends

Even wipes, one of the original disposables, have in the last decade grown dramatically as clever marketing made them increasingly essential for a wide range of personal, domestic and industrial cleaning jobs. Here too, a sector once dominated by cellulosics has evolved to use increasing percentages of the non-renewables.
  • Back in the 1960’s the leading disposable wipe in Europe were “J-Cloths” made by the Chicopee division of Johnson and Johnson, these being shadowed by numerous own-brand versions, one of which was made by the company I was doing Research for at that time – the BFF division of Courtaulds –then the leading rayon producer and the leading supplier of fibres to nonwovens.
  • Baby wet-wipes were unknown, but most users of towelling diapers used a nonwoven “nappy-liner” and these were often used for the initial clean-up during a change. Incidentally the nappy liners were flushable and biodegradable.
  • Wet wipes as we know them now were initially used for hand cleaning when travelling, came in canisters, and were also made of either wet or dry laid rayon, latex bonded.
  • Air-laid woodpulp with a minor content of reinforcing fibres took the lions share of growth in the USA and Europe
  • In the 1990’s hydroentangled rayon/polyester blends were successfully introduced into Europe as premium-priced ultra-soft (c.f.air-laid) baby wipes.
  • Since then the growth in the wipes sector has been dramatic, with spin-offs into household wipes for kitchen, bathroom, floors and furniture, and into dry-dusters using statically charged tow fibres.

Femcare trends

External protection has had a similar evolution to diapers, initially being based entirely on natural materials, mainly cotton. Early products were reusable but as nonwovens became available for disposable (insert-pad) diapers, disposable sanitary pads could be made, these to being flushable and biodegradable but for the small percentage of incompletely cross-linked latex used to bind the nonwoven. Like diapers they too evolved to make use of the cheaper synthetic fibres, films and synthetic superabsorbents.
The tampon market was always regarded as a “fortress” by the cellulosic fibre producers, where prices were good, innovation was justified, and competition from non-absorbent synthetics unlikely. I can recall the excitement when in 1980 Tampax decided to launch a new tampon with the trilobal inflated-rayon which had been under development for the previous 10 years in Courtaulds Research, only to witness the initial dramatic success of P&G’s new “Rely” tampon – which contained superabsorbent powder on urethane sponge inside a polyester “tea-bag”, instead of absorbent fibres. “Rely”, probably for the wrong reasons, was associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome and was abandoned, and while the rayon industry breathed a sigh of relief, Tampax too postponed their launch of the trilobal rayon as too risky in the immediate aftermath of "Rely". P&G stopped production of “Rely” and the superabsorbent on which it was based, and exited tampons, until acquiring Tampax in the late ‘90’s. Had it been otherwise, tampons too would now be based mainly on non-renewable fossil reserves.

Nonwovens: What Happens Next?

The fabulous growth of the nonwoven industry in general and the disposable diaper in particular has been fuelled by the availability of low-cost synthetic polymers, by-products of low-cost energy production from fossil reserves priced close to extraction –as opposed to replacement- cost.
Fibre forming, web forming and web bonding technologies have evolved to use these synthetics ever more efficiently. Sustainability, biodegradability, carbon-footprint, intergenerational equity, and depletion of fossil reserves have been concerns which remained in the background throughout, until now.
Will the growth continue? The big changes which are increasingly familiar to all consumers may soon affect their purchasing decisions and it may no longer be safe simply to extrapolate past nonwoven industry trends.
We review the past 40 years and think about the future over the next few postings.

Coming Next: Diaper Trends

Thursday 20 September 2007

Diaper Trends

For the last 40 years the growth of the nonwovens industry has been driven by the ready availability of synthetic fibres cheaply made by exploitation of non-renewable fossil reserves. Disposable nonwovens, from coverstock to core-wrap, and durables from geotextiles to home furnishings, have evolved to use polypropylene, a low-cost by-product of petroleum refining, which has become the fibre for nonwovens.
The high-volume converted products which use the disposable nonwovens – diapers especially – have grown even faster due to performance improvements obtained by replacing woodpulp with superabsorbents based on the same non-renewables. The life-enhancing convenience of disposable diapers allowed consumers to forget that their disposal via the solid waste stream diverted human excrement from its traditional treatment in the sewage systems, and made regular collection of rubbish an aesthetic and public health necessity.
Here’s a chronology:
  • 1950’s: Disposable diapers were biodegradable rectangular pads, disposed of by flushing down the toilet. They were made of woodpulp but for a tiny percentage of acrylic latex holding the rayon topsheet together. The pants into which they were inserted were washable and reusable.
  • 1960’s: P&G developed the one-piece Pampers diaper – kitefold – using the same materials but with an integrated plastic back, which meant it had to be disposed of in the solid waste stream. Consumer concerns about human faeces being spread on landfill, were soon overcome. Sales of rayon, then the cheapest fibre for coverstock, soared.
  • 1970’s: Rayon became more expensive than polyester so polyester was blended with rayon to make coverstock. “Surface dryness”was discovered with the less wettable synthetics.
  • 1980’s: Polypropylene staple, thermal bonded, becomes cheaper than rayon/polyester blends and hence becomes the coverstock of choice. Synthetic superabsorbents are blended with woodpulp to reduce leakage and improve surface dryness further.
  • 1990’s: Superabsorbent and elastic content increased, more 100% PP coverstock used per diaper as cuffs and textile-like backsheets are added. Children staying in diapers for longer. Training pants developed for older children.
  • 2000’s: 100% PP Coverstock switches to spunbond from staple, thanks to amazing improvements in the formation of lightweight achieved by Reicofil and others. Even core wrap is switching to PP from cellulose tissue. Diaper use growing in the world’s most populus regions (China, India)


Coming Next - Wipes & Femcare Trends