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Sustainability and fibrous substrates

Developments in environmentally friendly options for functional fabrics continue to emerge.

Features | March 28, 2022 | By: Seshadri Ramkumar

While sustainability efforts in the industry may have suffered over the past two years due to the pandemic, supply chain issues and the current crisis in Ukraine, we should not lose our focus on the importance of addressing climate change. A recent report from the Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns about hazards caused by a projected global warming of 1.5 degrees C in the next two decades. 

There is a growing interest in bast fibers like hemp, and the woody core of hemp, which can be used as a green building material.

The report emphasizes the importance of proper urban planning, infrastructure development, healthy living ecosystems and well-planned transportation. These will require better manufacturing initiatives, a highly skilled workforce and investments in research and development in sustainable products.

Recent events, in fact, urge us on toward sustainable growth and development. The advanced textiles sector will continue to have a significant role to play in the sustainability development process. 

A four-legged table

Sustainability can be described as a table that must have four types of “sustainability legs” in order to stand—elemental, environmental, energy and economic—and sustainable manufacturing must involve all the “4Es.” 

Elemental sustainability involves the use of raw materials which have a smaller carbon footprint, ie., greener products. Use of such materials leads to lighter burden on nature, enabling environmental sustainability. To achieve these, one must have control of the use of energy, hence energy sustainability is imperative. Energy sustainability impacts manufacturing and economy directly and can be achieved by practicing conservation and using alternate energy sources. The fourth aspect of sustainability is indeed an important one—economic viability. Balanced approaches—the 4Es four-legged table—will enable cost-effective, sustainable advanced products. 

Balancing cost and technology is important and practical, says Kody Bessent, CEO, Plains Cotton Growers Inc. “There are substantial costs relating to innovation and sustainability that producers adhere to on an annual basis, whether that is investment in newer agronomic/seed technologies or management practices,” Bessent says. “At times, higher prices received for cotton by producers allow them to invest more in their operation just as any other small business. However, investments in innovative technology or agronomic practices must be cost effective with some proven return before a producer will consider adopting a new or alternative practice on a large scale, which impacts sustainability efforts nationally or globally.”

Strategy and approaches

According to Dr. Kater Hake, vice president for Agricultural and Environmental Research at Cotton Inc., “The cotton industry has long implemented a strategy that profitability is enhanced by efficiency. This has had the ancillary benefit of favorably supporting climate change goals. 

“Over the past 15 years we have deliberately sought out cotton production efficiency gains that impact climate change, such as improving fertilizer use efficiency with soil health and cutting back on nitrogen fertilizer with more precise soil residual measurements. These lead to greenhouse gas reductions per bale that the textile industry can and should include as part of its climate change initiatives.”

Other measures, such as more consumer outreach and education, are needed to get more buy-ins from stakeholders. “In order to drive activities to offset or reduce climate change, our industry should focus on transparency and standardization,” says Tom Carlyle, nonwovens commercial manager–Americas, Lenzing AG. “Transparency is required for every supply chain player and consumer to make the best decisions for their sustainability objectives.” 

Consumers also have a role to play in the sustainability equation by adopting user-friendly approaches, including reducing water consumption in cleaning and using detergents that work at low temperature, says Dr. Siva Pariti, senior technical marketing officer of U.K.-based Bluwin Ltd. 

Dr. Jesse Daystar, chief sustainability officer for Cotton Inc., emphasizes the importance of consumer awareness concerning sustainability issues. “Consumer awareness is there, most consumers—about 76 percent—say cotton is safe for the environment, according to Cotton Inc. and the Cotton Council International (CCI) 2021 Global Sustainability Survey,” Daystar says. “Measurement tools through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, for example, are working to bring data used by brands, retailers, and manufacturers forward to the customer by integrating it into the shopping experience.”  

Sustainable functionality

The textiles sector has so far capitalized on natural origin, biodegradability and compostability of its raw materials and products. The next phase should focus on exploring high performance and functional aspects, which can lead to value-added and industrial applications. As the cost of products influence consumer acceptance, such value-added products may lack immediate acceptance in commodity markets; however, in industrial applications and in environmental protection and health care settings, cost may not be a barrier.

Health care and environmental products

Due to the mode of application, the cost of products and inherent characteristics, technical textile products used in hospital, environmental, automotive and industrial settings have been synthetic based. However, with greater awareness of the negative impacts of global warming in the forthcoming years, opportunities are plentiful for the industrial fabrics sector to look for incremental and disruptive advancements to replace potentially harmful synthetics.

The pandemic has, in general, provided new impetus for textiles in advanced applications. With the significant increase in gas prices recently, alternate energy sources are getting serious consideration. In these scenarios there are openings for new and advanced textile products, which can offer a smaller carbon footprint.

The need for sustainable products

Face coverings have become a widely discussed topic. Indeed, this product heightened public awareness about the importance of textiles as vital materials. With this recognition there comes due responsibility, including how to dispose of them. 

Typically, personnel protective equipment (PPE) is made using synthetic nonwovens, which are not biodegradable, as are cellulosic products. A genuine concern—and a valid research question for the textile community—concerns the cost-effective disposal of medical textile wastes. This challenge, as well, leads to new opportunities for using functional sustainable textiles. 

In the case of some viruses, research has shown that, compared to synthetic materials and metals, cellulosics and paper-based products tend to destabilize them quickly. Information about the medical and environmental benefits of cellulosic materials could be significant in developing next-generation medical PPE and should be widely shared in the advanced textiles industry and among its stakeholders.  

Recent advances 

In the textile sector, within the functional materials area, developments may be broadly classified as either incremental or disruptive. Incremental developments have focused on using sustainable materials to improve the earth-friendly nature of advanced products, which have generally been synthetic.

In one variant, FiberTectTM wipe, marketed by Chantilly-Va.-based First Line Technology, uses synthetic layers in the multi-layered composite structure as a countermeasure to toxic chemicals. The same structure can be developed using cotton layers with an adsorptive layer as an oil absorbent. The cotton nonwoven layer could absorb the liquid oil, while volatile vapors from oil can be held by the adsorptive layer. 

This variant is an incremental development, which is sustainable and provides functionalities such as absorption and adsorption. This material finds application as a sustainable oil absorbent and can serve as an alternative to a meltblown synthetic absorbent. 

Aruppukkottai, India-based Jayalakshmi Textiles, a cotton spinning mill, has recently developed a 100 percent cotton-based oil absorbent. Years of its expertise in cotton and cotton processing enabled the company to diversify into a functional sustainable product. 

A new cellulose acetate fiber from the multi-national Eastman Chemical Co. can be thermally bonded. A disruptive development, VesteraTM may lead to extrudable material for developing PPE. Currently, the PPE market is dominated by polypropylene-based spunbond and meltblown products, which are not easily biodegradable. VesteraTM is a potential alternative to synthetic material in medical and industrial applications. 

Unconventional fibers, such as those derived from bananas and bast fibers like hemp, are getting attention in developing home textiles and industrial products. Research conducted in Prof. Govindan Ramakrishnan’s laboratory at Coimbatore-based Kumaraguru College of Technology focuses on exploiting exotic fibers with other natural fibers, including organic cotton, to develop a variety of home textiles, such as house mats popularly known as, “jamakkalam.” 

There is also a growing interest in bast fibers like hemp as a green building material, but it has yet to catch significant momentum. The woody core of hemp called “hurd” can be used as a building material, says Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agronomist, Lubbock, and statewide hemp specialist for the agency. “Hurd mixed with lime and water is called “hempcrete,” and it is fireproof, Trostle adds.

Profitable and sustainable

Crisis situations, whether it’s the pandemic or a threat to international security, brings into sharp focus the need for innovation, particularly in personnel protection. Innovation must play an important role in growing the sustainable, functional textiles sector. “We need to be clever and invest in tools and innovations that benefit both profitability and sustainability,” says Hake. 

The textiles sector has a place in the innovation space in developing products for a wide range of market areas, from industrial infrastructure to defense, to medical products—all using sustainable processes and products.

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor in the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.

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