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Unravelling Sustainable Futures at the EDANA Sustainability Forum 2023

An image of someone speaking at a forum

The 2023 EDANA Sustainability Forum, hosted at the Solvay Library, Brussels, was a dynamic congregation of industry leaders, policy influencers, and experts who shared a common goal—unravelling sustainable futures for the nonwoven industry. The event, held from November 28th to 30th, provided an informative platform for insightful panel discussions and offered a glimpse into a future where sustainability and legislation are more intertwined. It was clear from the discussions that future legislation will likely shift away from favouring biodegradable single-use products and focus on circular economies with the need for industry transformation.

Sustainability and Legislation: A Unified Path Forward

The integration of sustainability and legislation emerged as a recurring theme throughout the conference. Several presentations and panel discussions delved into the critical insights between policy and sustainable industry practices. In particular, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, DG Environment, European Commission captivated audiences with his detailed exploration of the global plastic pollution challenge. His insights effectively highlighted the importance of aligning legislative efforts with global environmental priorities, ultimately shaping sustainable plastic economies. It was clear from his presentation that the focus for future legislation will focus on building circular economies rather than biodegradability.

NIRI CCO, Dr. Ross Ward presenting at the Edana Sustainability Forum 2023

Sustainable Transformations in Nonwoven Products: Embracing Change

A highlight of the forum was from NIRI CCO, Dr Ross Ward, who presented a compelling narrative on sustainable transformations in nonwoven products, including past, present, and prospects within the industry. He focused on how technology helps us deal with problems and exploit new opportunities. His talk demonstrated the progress made by the industry and confirmed its dedication to creating new, sustainable ways of working.

Dr Ward highlighted the complexity and ambiguity surrounding the topic of sustainability and the challenges it presents to industry, society and the environment. In the last 20 years, NIRI has adopted various strategies to enhance the sustainability of nonwoven products for industry, reflecting customer needs and legislative requirements. This has included:

  • Reducing the weight of products and replacing multi-layers with single layers
  • Extracting or reducing non-renewable materials and energy resources
  • Minimising waste or repurposing it into new revenue streams
  • Replacing petroleum-based materials with natural or biopolymer alternatives
  • Developing and evaluating recycling infrastructures and Circular Economies
  • Designing for end-of-life disposal.

Although the introduction of legislation, such as the single-use directive (SUPD), is a positive step towards a more sustainable future, there needs to be a greater understanding and definition of the issue at hand. The industry sometimes perceives these knowledge gaps as misleading, disruptive to growth, and expensive if manufacturing infrastructural transformations are required.


Tackling the Real Challenge: Acceptance, Mitigation, and Prevention

NIRI believes that as an industry and society, we are trying to manufacture commercially viable products while preventing the leakage of fibres, toxic chemicals, particulates, fabrics, end-of-life products, and greenhouse gases into the environment.

The presentation highlighted two pragmatic approaches to adopting this strategy—accepting leakage but minimising consequences and preventing leakage by changing the system. Currently, the industry is focused on the former as most innovations and changes so far have been focused on changing or improving processes or materials to minimise the consequences of leakage. Dr Ward detailed a broad range of approaches that industry has adopted, including an overview of benefits and limitations of biodegradable materials.

To prevent leakage completely, NIRI believes that we need to change the system and design and implement full-life cycle management and infrastructure for new circular economies.

Understanding that this requirement may be guided by future legislation, Dr Ward acknowledged that this latter approach is no small undertaking and empathised with the industry as it could mean a complete transformative change to the supply chain and a rethink of the business model and target customer.

Knowing that future EU legislation could be more guided towards circular economies and using wet wipes as an example product, Dr Ward presented what a model circular economy could look like in the future and compared the potential leakage bioproducts to an existing linear economy.

Key takeaways:

  • For existing linear economies, it’s clear that whether products contain fossil-based/ non-biodegradable fibres or bio-based/ biodegradable at end of life when they are disposed by incineration, followed by burial, they emit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and can contribute to environment contamination.
  • If you switched this to a full cycle and circular economy approach, then GHG emissions can be prevented for both material options, if you make the products using renewable energy resources and switch to a bio-based feedstock for the non-biodegradable option.
  • Switching to a bio-feedstock means that CO2 is sequestered during its biomass form, so rather than single-use products being labelled as a sustainability liability, they could be a mass scale approach to decarbonisation.
  • BIO-PET is a very hot topic at present due to its impressive LCA and ability to be chemically ‘unzipped’ at end of life and potential to be chemically recycled economically. This could be a interesting technology for industry to explore further.
  • Future consumers could be data companies, that would like to extract information and understand relationships between health and geographic locations by using biomarkers or companies looking to offset their carbon emissions.
  • Key barriers to be addressed include collection logistics and decontamination, but there are some interesting technologies being developed that could resolve this issue in the near future.

NIRI believes in going beyond biodegradability and focusing on the collection and recyclability of bio-based products to significantly advance net-zero goals. This emphasis on embracing full life cycle thinking ensures a sustainable circular economy, setting the stage for profound industry-wide impact.

In confronting the challenges ahead, NIRI, with its unique oversight of the nonwoven supply chain, aims to support industry and help them prosper within volatile market environments.

Moving Towards a Circular Economy

The heart of the event embraced a fervent dedication to fostering a circular economy. Speakers and panellists conscientiously deliberated on the feasibility of a circular economy without biological cycles. The insightful session, “Is a circular economy possible without biological cycles?” touched upon debates surrounding biodegradable compostable wipes and absorbent hygiene products, penetrating into future product designs and ecological transitions. Such deliberations resoundingly captured the forum’s commitment to unfolding the circular economy’s potential in the nonwoven sector.

The Nonwoven Industry’s Pledge to Sustainability

The nonwoven industry made resounding commitments to sustainability throughout the event. Presentations and panel discussions magnified the industry’s impact in resilient infrastructure, clean air and water filtration, and absorbent hygiene products. This was perfectly encapsulated in the panel, “How do nonwovens benefit society?” where experts from Freudenberg Performance Materials, Hollingsworth & Vose, and Procter & Gamble eloquently articulated the industry’s profound societal contributions, underscoring its pivotal role in building resilient ecosystems.

Acknowledging the significant efforts of EDANA in guiding and representing the nonwoven industry, it’s important to recognise their “lighthouse” approach as a beacon during challenging times. The 2023 Sustainability Forum by EDANA was not just an insightful event but also a clear demonstration of dedication amidst the turmoil caused by legislative changes. Despite the tension between sustainability goals and new regulations impacting businesses, the industry is striving to find harmony and innovate sustainably. We owe a big thank you to EDANA for it insights into setting out the path forward, even when sustainability and legislation seem to clash. This forum was a reminder that while the journey is complex, the goal of a circular economy is well within our grasp.

Stay tuned for further blogs featuring deeper dives into the innovative strides and transformative dialogues that are being made within the nonwoven industry.