nova-Institut: The role of cellulosic fibers ...

The role of cellulosic fibers in a circular economy

Michael Carus
Michael Carus

Cellulose has great properties in terms of the circular economy. As a high-quality multipurpose fiber from nature, it is bio-based, renewable, biodegradable, recyclable, carbon binding and safe for people and the environment. Cellulose belongs to the renewable carbon family and plays an important role in replacing fossil-based materials.

Cellulosic fibers are virtually miracle materials. They have a wide range of applications that are increasingly expanding. The markets are driven by technological developments and political framework conditions, especially bans and restrictions on plastics and increasing sustainability requirements.

The environmental need for an industry based on renewable carbon puts natural materials in the spotlight. Cellulosic fibers meet many demands: The demands of new policies, the demands of consumers with increasing awareness and a new sense of appreciation for natural materials, the market demands for diversely applicable strong and soft materials and the demands of our planet, which is already burdened far too heavily by microplastics and greenhouse gases.

For this positive role in the circular economy to be ­resilient and for cellulose to be a sustainable solution, a number of requirements must be met along the value chain. This starts with the raw material, which must have a sustainability certification such as FSC, PEFC or ISCC, and continues with environmentally friendly processing methods and the recycling of the final products. There is still a lot of catching up to do, especially on the last point. In the textile sector in particular, only a small proportion of used textiles have been recycled to date, although it is now technologically possible to produce high-quality fibers and textiles again from old cellulosic fiber textiles. In addition to start-ups, all major cellulosic fiber producers are meanwhile working intensively on this topic.

Cellulosic fibers have been the fastest growing textile fiber over the last 10 years, even though their share is still less than 10 %. With the increasing discussion about microplastic pollution in the oceans, petroleum-based textile fibers will continue to come under pressure, cotton cannot expand its area any further (not to mention the environmental impact), meaning cellulosic fibers remain at an advantage here. Their market share will continue to expand. This is also due to the fact that, thanks to further developed technologies, cellulosic fibers can now cover much wider property ranges than before. The same applies to the important area of wet wipes, where the plastic bans of the European Single Use Plastic Directive (SUPD) will take effect and only certain cellulosic fibers will be permitted from summer 2021. The final version of the SUPD is not yet ready. Paper and lyocell fibers will in any case be accepted as an alternative to plastic fibers as "natural and unmodified polymers". In the case of viscose, there are currently still discussions as to whether they can be accepted as "unmodified" within the meaning of the SUPD. From a scientific point of view, it seems arbitrary to draw the dividing line between viscose and lyocell. If viscose has to be labelled as "plastic", cheaper real plastic products will benefit from it – and the environment will lose out.

Cellulosic fibers are based on bio-based carbon and thus belong to the "renewable carbon family" as defined by the Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI): bio-based, CO2-based and recycled. For a future without any fossil carbon.

In addition to the textile woven and nonwovens market, there are a number of new and expanded applications. In the field of cellulosic micro- and nanofibers, the properties of plastics, paints and even foodstuffs can be modified and improved.

A good insight into current innovations is shown by the winners of the first innovation award “Cellulose Fibre Innovation of the Year 2021”. The award, chosen by the audience at the 2nd International Conference on Cellulose Fibers, was presented by the nova-Institut and the sponsor Levaco, Leverkusen/Germany. Stora Enso from Sweden won the award with new cellulose foam for packaging. They were followed by Kelheim Fibres from Germany with high-quality hygiene products made of cellulose and Metsä Spring from Finland with an innovative cellulosic fiber production process.

Once bans on plastic under the SUPD are in place in all European countries (EU-27), alternatives to plastics will be sought in 13 applications. This is a great opportunity for cellulosic fibers to penetrate new markets. The following product groups could be particularly interesting: beverage containers made from expanded polystyrene, sticks, lightweight carrier bags, packets and wrappers, sanitary towels (pads, panty liners), tampons, filters and wet wipes.

Politics has opened the doors for cellulosic fibers, now it is a matter of turning these opportunities into products and markets with innovations. It remains exciting in the cellulose sector!

Michael Carus
Founder and CEO
nova-Institut GmbH

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