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Underway and not going away

Features | November 12, 2013 | By:

Sustainability is today’s hot topic and will impact the way in which the textile industry functions in the future.

Sustainability is often discussed and often misunderstood; yet, nothing is more important to our industry than providing what our customers require while supporting good stewardship of this planet.  Are the two goals—protecting the environment and a prosperous industry—compatible? Some would answer with an emphatic “yes”; others are not so sure.

For many, sustainability is recycling: using plastic bottles to make new fiber and using those fibers in less demanding applications. To others, it is not wasting chemicals, energy or water, not producing harmful off-gases into the air or releasing effluent that pollutes.

Recycling has been promoted for decades—identifying waste, reducing it, segregating it, collecting it and/or selling it for new purposes: reduce, reuse, recycle. But the emphasis in those efforts was in reducing costs. Reducing and selling waste to be used in other ways could have a substantial impact on the bottom line. Less thought might have been given to the environment, as such. What we couldn’t reuse or sell, we paid someone to take away for us.

Things have changed.

Take it seriously

Today, sustainability procedures are increasingly integrated into business practice. Even countries like China are enacting regulations for reduced water, chemical and energy usage. Europe is far ahead of the U.S. in terms of programs for control and certification. Although the U.S. has many regulations, those who wish to do business globally are using European guidelines and standards. Special certifications indicate what sustainable practices a company is using, and audits confirm compliance. This is necessary to do business in Europe and elsewhere. (See “Sustainability metrics and certifications.”)

Sustainability self-evaluation

What, then, is sustainability, and how does it relate to technical textiles and advanced textiles, in particular? Three “pillars of sustainability” have been popularly referenced since first discussed at the 1992 Earth Summit: environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic prosperity, or “planet, people and profit.” In a talk given at The International Conference on Textile Coating and Laminating 2012 in Valencia, Spain, Dan Dwight, president and CEO of Cooley Group, Pawtucket, R.I., posed these questions as a means to determine one’s sustainability commitment (paraphrased):

Environmental stewardship. Are the products you make environmentally sound?  Do your products have a lower carbon footprint than alternatives? Are the processes you use to make your products environmentally sound? Are the chemicals and polymers used focused on keeping wasteful or harmful byproducts at a minimum? Does your energy consumption have the same approach? Is what and how you make your products harmful to the people involved in producing them? Are you doing your best to maximize the health and safety of your employees?

Social responsibility. Are your products designed to minimize the impact on society and the waste stream? What happens to them when their useful life is over? Is there another use? Can they be recycled into new or other products? In a best-case scenario, do your processes allow for “perpetual cycle” or “cradle-to-grave sustainability,” which means that you make it of materials that can be recycled, you ship it, you (or someone else) take it back after its use and recycle it when the need is finished. This area impacts your neighbors and the community in which you operate, as well, not just those in your plant.

Economic prosperity. A sustainable product is often thought to cost more to manufacture so one must charge more for it or else reduce your earnings. Dwight says this is false. His company is spending more time educating customers on the benefits of sustainability with a focus on dispelling the myth that sustainability should cost more. “If you cannot operate at a profit, it is not sustainable. No one can sustain a loss. Either you turn a profit or you stop producing.” Turning a profit allows you to invest in more modern and efficient equipment and to recruit the best and brightest people who can help find more efficient ways to meet your sustainability goals.

Fibers, fabrics, finishes

The textile industry is energy, water and chemically intensive. Finding more efficient dry finishing techniques is a priority, so research in plasma treatments is garnering attention. Plasma is an ionized gas that allows the use of many chemicals to change and improve the surface of fabrics, resulting in a system for coating and otherwise treating fabrics utilizing no-wet finishing and without changing or actually improving fabric properties. The basic technology has the potential to create more efficient alternative finishes.

Vacuum plasma treating for textiles has been around for years, such as depositing silver molecules onto fabric for electronic applications, but it is slow and expensive. Other types of plasma have been studied for fabrics but they have deficiencies: too hot, too weak or they have some other undesirable trait that limits their applicability. High-pressure plasma treatments have been developed, but they are costly and energy inefficient.

The “holy grail” has been practical and cost-efficient low-pressure atmospheric systems. Though many claim to have made breakthroughs, no equipment is commercially in place at this time, but some promising prototypes are being evaluated for their practicality.

Gary Selwyn, a consultant and pioneer in the field of atmospheric plasma systems, says “Plasma finishing of textiles works.” Plasma is an all-dry system with no chemical baths or water discharged that could pollute. There is no waste stream. No tenters or large energy-wasteful ovens are required. The system uses energy only when treating fabric. Dual functional treatments are possible, stacking layers of the same or different monomers/treatments on one side or both for uniquely different properties on either side. For example, one side may be hydrophobic, the other hydrophilic.

There are drawbacks. Selwyn says that the systems currently being developed are expensive; there is a need to reduce machine capital and increase throughput speeds to aid depreciation costs. Future work will focus on new plasma designs using gases other than the expensive helium currently being used.

Although it’s taken awhile, Selwyn expects breakthroughs. Atmospheric plasma treatments are being developed and refined as a cost-effective and versatile finishing technique. He expects this method to change the way textiles are treated and finished.

An all-dry chemical, thermal approach

Other novel dry treatment systems have evolved that do not require plasma. Selwyn has recently established Green Theme Technologies LLC, Santa Fe, N.M., with a new approach that, he says, breaks new ground in providing a long-term sustainable solution to textile finishing.

Chem-Stik® is an all-dry, solid chemical technology using a proprietary blend of nonhazardous chemicals and natural ingredients to produce an inexpensive and highly durable finishing treatment. The treatment is applied with a proprietary method and cured with a short (30 seconds or less) thermal exposure. Because no water is needed and no fluorocarbons used, it is a more eco-friendly and energy efficient method. The system is still in development but expected to be released soon.

Surface modification

Surface modification with new dry, sustainable techniques are being developed and offered by a number of companies and are likely to evolve as major breakthroughs in finishing. Alexium International Group based in Australia and the U.S. produces and commercializes its Reactive Surface Treatment (RST) approach. The patented technology was developed with the U.S. Air Force for multiple high-value defense applications for personal protection. By combining particular chemistry with microwave curing to alter the surface of fabrics, many special properties can be imparted to a range of materials. Alexium earned a substantial contract from the U.S. Department of Defense treating nylon-based fabrics for personal protection applications. This has enabled the company to raise sufficient funds to continue its research and to perfect and expand into the civilian sector, including high-performance advanced textiles.

Declared a “World’s Best Technology” (WBT) at the 2009 WBT showcase, an annual investment and licensing forum, it is considered “a potentially disruptive process of rapidly attaching nanoparticles and multifunctional groups to surfaces.” The technology produces fabrics for military use that are self-extinguishing, antimicrobial, oil and water resistant, anti-odor and chemical agent reactive. The process is flexible, cost efficient, environmentally compliant and potentially applicable to a variety of fibers, including aramids, etching the fibers and fabric surfaces for better adhesion and infusion of other properties.

Commercial spin-offs and licensing of Alexium’s technology are planned. The company recently allied with Duro Textiles LLC, a technical textiles finishing and distribution company, to license its fire-resistant technology for nylon. Future environmentally friendly products will evolve. Their special chemical technology minimizes waste and reduces energy consumption. Alexium is at the forefront of introducing nonhalogenating products to the technical textile marketplace.

Biobased fibers

Several companies have introduced new biobased products into the marketplace. Brazilian nonwovens producer Fitesa S.A. is producing hygiene and personal care products of 100 percent biobased, bicomponent, spunbond nonwovens in its South Carolina plant. Fitesa is allied with Brazilian company Braskem S.A. for fiber with a sheath of biobased polyethylene (bio-PE) derived from sugar cane-based ethanol and a core made of NaturWorks’ 100 percent biobased PLA (polylactic acid) fiber made from renewable resources. The fiber replaces petroleum-based bicomponent spunbonds currently used. Its softness is “exceptional and counters the misconception some may have that [sustainable products] must represent compromise in performance,” says Ray Dunleavy, Fitesa’s director of marketing. The technology should be applicable to technical textiles, as well.

PLA polymers, incidentally, have been touted as a potential PVC replacement for certain coating applications, though acceptance so far has been limited—showing, perhaps, that not all sustainable products will easily replace some long-established materials.

Fast enough?

Suppliers of chemicals and adhesives and many areas of high performance textiles are working toward developing and supplying more sustainable products. It is perhaps more problematic where heavy capital expenses are involved for machinery. While many of the textile industry and technical textile producers have modernized in the last few years (they would be hard pressed to compete if they did not) some of the new, more efficient equipment may still incur burdensome costs and may slow down the growth of sustainable products. But attention to sustainability is not just desirable, but essential.

Not all feel the industry is moving quickly enough. The Netherlands company, Klieverik, a major producer of specialty coating and laminating equipment, offers machines and techniques for more environmentally friendly processes. Karel Lansu, director of marketing and sales for Klieverik, is a bit more pessimistic about the industry embracing newer equipment. He says, “It’s a hard sell to promote environmentally friendly equipment and change the industry. You need first to convince the R and D, then you need to convince marketing, then you have to convince sales.”

Management should have a vision on this issue, he says, and should back up their employees investigating it and then implement it. This is happening, but slowly. Lansu finds that most companies are interested only if the production is cheaper, if they’ll get better performance or it will solve a specific problem facing them. But he sees environmental issues finally turning the corner, although many are still reluctant to pay for a cleaner environment and reduce, reuse and recycle.  The impression that the consumer does not want to pay for it persists.

Lansu is not speaking only of the U.S., but globally. “The urgency is just not there,” he says. Many companies want to keep the status quo, says Lansu, not investing in new equipment for new production technologies.

Is that an indictment on the future of sustainability? No, but only legislation will change this situation, not something that U.S. companies or citizens want to hear. Yet, while many ideas and technology developments are in the works to improve sustainability efforts, the U.S. is near the bottom in patents applied for for “green” procedures. Japan, Canada, Russia, Australia and most countries in Europe are far ahead. Only China and India are behind (see chart).

As an example, remember automotive air bags? A good idea but “the customer won’t pay for it,” was the mantra. It took 20 years before the U.S. government required them in cars and suppliers adjusted. Today air bags are standard and we never give it a second thought. This could happen in the area of sustainability.

Early adopters

While some may be pessimistic, many are proving that sustainability efforts can pay. The Cooley Group, a supplier of fabric media for graphics applications, is helping to change the landscape, not only switching major customers over to a new material—polyethylene—which is easily recyclable, but using fewer materials, making it lighter weight and still staying cost competitive.

Alliances for many will be essential for sustainable development. By partnering with Dow, says Dwight, they had a much broader access to chemistries “that increased the likelihood of success for designing a product with the lowest carbon footprint possible.” The result met customers’ needs for a socially responsible nonhalogenated, fire-retardant product for the print industry. Olympic Stadium in London was wrapped in such a product, and when the event was over, Cooley took the material back and recycled it.

Cooley has revised its product line to address the three pillars of sustainability, illustrated, in part, by their impact on billboards. This market has dramatically changed with innovative, wider fabrics and ink-jet printing technology replacing conventional printing and printed paper. The billboard market, for example, has typically used a 12-ounce PVC.  Cooley, with a large share of the billboard market, has helped by transitioning many to a seven-ounce product. This saves the customer 15 percent and reduces the quantity of raw materials needed. The company is working on a 5.3 ounce polyethylene that will reduce weight by 25 percent and will be 100 percent recyclable.

Dwight says, “We have been spending more and more time educating our customers on the benefits of sustainability.  We are focused on dispelling the myth that sustainability should cost more.”

Cooley received ISO 9001-2008 certification about a year ago. The designation recognizes that the company has a systematic framework for managing its manufacturing. It just recently received ISO 14001 certification, as well, a standard that reflects a company’s commitment to sustainability.

New developments are being announced almost daily in some phase of technical and advanced textiles: new fibers and forms; new coating, laminating and finishing techniques; more efficient machinery; new markets; and upgraded applications. Virtually all of those developments have some relationship to sustainability.


William C. Smith is a technical textile consultant. He can be reached at (

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