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EDANA coal into diamonds

Turning coal into diamonds: SNW meets EDANA

Adrian Wilson and Pierre Wiertz discuss the current challenges and opportunities facing the nonwovens sector

In the run up to Dornbirn and  OUTLOOK™  Sustainable Nonwovens consulting editor Adrian Wilson caught up with Pierre Wiertz, EDANA's General Manager on the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

Adrian Wilson: There suddenly seem to be a number of issues attracting negative publicity for the nonwovens industry, either directly or by association. The issue of plastics in the oceans, for example, has been a huge story, and despite all of the industry’s efforts, wipes continue to cause problems in sewage systems. What are the next steps the industry can take in respect of these problems and how can we combat the negative attention?

Pierre Wiertz: As an industry we have a duty of care to ensure our products perform while also mitigating their impact on the environment. The impact of nonwovens should not be overestimated however – they make up very small percentage of the culprits found in our oceans and waterways. The EU directive aims primarily at fishing nets, straws, earbuds and so on, but we should address what we can. In specific reference to wet wipes, we enjoy a longstanding and productive relationship with water bodies dating back to 2007, ensuring our products are compatible with existing infrastructure. We continue to act to ensure wipes pass agreed standards on ‘flushabilty’ and dispersion. The recently launched industry guidelines help wipe manufacturers assess whether their products can be flushed into the wastewater stream. 

The guidelines are coupled with an industry Code of Practice on labelling, aimed at informing consumers on how to dispose of the products correctly, solving the issue at source. This initiative pre-empts proposed EU directives in this area and we plan to keep taking the initiative in responsible product stewardship.

Altogether, we don’t think it’s correct to talk of ‘combating negative attention’. These issues need investigating and should be flagged. The debate in the UK should not hide the fact that it is not our industry’s products that are top of the EU agenda. Our focus is on engaging with other key stakeholders (water bodies, retailers, government bodies, the media and consumer and conservation groups) to ensure wipes are sourced, produced and disposed of efficiently and in a sustainable manner.

AW: Do you think the ban on certain disposable plastic products by the EU could be extended to categories of wipes?

PW: I think it’s both unlikely and unworkable. Wipes play a far more important role in society than straws do for example, and practical alternatives are not as readily available.

AW: What other action might the EU take in the next few years that could impact on the industry?

PW: There will be an increasing focus on measures that foster sustainability. The EU’s 2018 Circular Economy Package examines, in depth, how plastics are designed, produced, used and recycled. There will likely be a ‘carrot and stick’ approach with both legislative instruments and financial inducements to promote change. The growing demand for transparency will mean that monitoring and reporting play a bigger role as well.

AW: What are the major new changes in the EDANA and INDA updated Flushability Guidelines?

PW: The bar has been raised with the introduction of the new guidelines. There are important new requirements for the Code of Practice on labelling, ensuring consumers are ever more aware on how to safely dispose of wipes. There are also some key technical updates, drafted by a working group made up of nonwoven and waste water technical experts from around the globe. Specifically, the criteria for the slosh box and municipal pump tests have been revised. The guidelines are available for all to read and download on the EDANA website.

AW: In the UK, tea companies have very quickly bowed to customer pressure to introduce non-plastic-containing teabags. Is this rapid response simply a question of that sector’s small scale, or could similar initiatives be initiated elsewhere?

PW: Well, I’m not sure that we can call the sector small scale – the British are famous for their love of tea! But, to answer your question, I think the question of rapidity is primarily a technical one. Heat-sealed designs clearly needed a thermoplastic element. Similar changes in other nonwoven sectors are more challenging. But that’s not to say the desire is not there. I’m sure some great minds are working on it… Fundamentally the question remains how one can stop people from confusing the requirement to reduce greenhouse emissions with moving away overnight from materials of ‘fossil origin’. From a Life Cycle Assessment perspective, it may sometimes be more environmentally sound and sustainable to reduce weight and volume than to switch to renewable sources.

AW: Do these threats also represent opportunities?

PW: Change always represents opportunity – pressure is what turns coal into diamonds. Teabags are a point in case and I’m sure further innovation is on the horizon. I’m very excited about what nonwovens can do in acoustics and batteries for instance, where innovation is a given, but external forces have also been a key driver. Legislative change also provides the opportunity to further engage with the other stakeholders I mentioned earlier.

AW: What will be the focus of EDANA’s involvement at the upcoming Dornbirn Global Fiber Congress in Austria?

PW: EDANA is a proud silver sponsor of this year’s congress. Our objective in nonwovens innovation and R&D is always to help create a productive environment for innovation, by improving the image and perception of the nonwovens industry and stimulating the interest of new talent.

This year’s theme of Recycling and the Circular Economy is of particular interest as the nonwovens industry is in rapid transition. The circular economy and its implications – better designs, reduced use of raw materials, development of new technologies, recycling, upcycling, system thinking – are high on the agenda of the nonwovens value chains for producers, converters and suppliers alike.

Each year EDANA covers the cost of attendance for young scientists in the industry and we have two very interesting experts attending this year – Marion Lüt, a researcher at DITF looking at fibre reinforcement and Patrick Engel at STFI, who currently works on projects with a focus on technical adhesive tapes and nonwovens with acoustic absorption and filtrating functions. It is rewarding to cast an eye to the future and see such positive energy and rich talent on the horizon.

AW: Can we also expect the Circular Economy to dominate presentations at this year’s EDANA Outlook in Dubrovnik?

PW: It is certainly a prominent topic this year. Our Day One keynote speech by Hugo Schally of the DG Environment at the European Commission is on the EU circular economy strategy and is followed by a full session on this theme with key industry players providing insight. But we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture and as well as taking a look at key trends and some very exciting technical innovations, the programme also covers increasing consumer and government concern over transparency and trust in the supply chain. We have some very intriguing sessions lined up – it’s the most topical schedule in some time, directly addressing the challenges of our time in our industry. 

This interview appears in the September edition of Sustainable Nonwovens. It should not be reproduced without permission.
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