Diaper film technology

Ellen Noonan

thin is ‘in,’ while breathability is still too expensive to justify the added benefits; the environment continues as a major issue both in the U.S. and Europe

The diaper film segment of the nonwovens industry is one where “less is more” characterizes the thinking of customers. Of course, the “less” must also give “more” in terms of performance properties and added value. With much of the industry looking to cuts costs where they can, diaper film suppliers have responded by reducing the gauge of their films while maintaining the required strength properties to keep performance at a premium.

Breathability is at the other end of the price spectrum; in a recessionary economy, diaper producers are not willing to commit extra money to have a breathable film that has not been proven beneficial. As one film supplier candidly put it, “I never had a baby say he was uncomfortable because his diaper couldn’t breathe.”

The other “B” in the diaper film segment, biodegradability, also remains a hot topic, but once again, many of the suppliers have adopted a “wait and see” attitude. The public lost a lot of faith in biodegradability several years ago, thanks to the effort of garbologist William Rathje and others, who prove that nothing biodegrades in a landfill. The proliferation of starch-based biodegradable films on the market at the time quickly faded in a sea of negative publicity.

At this time, however, led to a great extent by the efforts of diaper manufacturer Procter & Gamble, composting rather than landfilling is the focus of attention and films that degrade in composting infrastructures seem much more feasible than films that biodegrade under a mass of garbage withou any air or water to aid the process.

The Environmental Issue

Diaper film suppliers run the gamut from skeptical to cautious to enthusiastic about the future of degradable films. Most fall somewhere in the middle. Stephen Crimmin, business director at film supplier CT Film, Schaumburg, IL, said there is still” a lot of interest but not a lot of action” on the issue of biodegradability. A lot of this may have to do with the poor reception starch-based films received. “People questioned whether this was was actually a solution and now they’re being very cautious,” said Mr. Crimmin. CT Film manufactures cast, coextruded and blown film products.

Stephen Prince, business segment manager-disposable products at Tredegar Film Products, Richmond, VA, also believes that degradability is still a major concern, but the focus is no longer degradability in landfills. Tredegar is currently supplying a prototype compostable diaper film to P&G for use in P&G’s composting projects (a 100% compostable diaper is currently being tested in two U.S. locations). Tredegar is also involved in the adult incontinence market, primarily as a back-sheet and topsheet supplier to P&G.

Mr. Prince uses the P&G project as an example of the new “degradability” focus. “The goal of this work is that when properly composted, the diaper films will decompose into carbon dioxide, water and humus,” he said.

Environmentally, Europe is also feeling the heat of the “disposing of disposables” issue, where options being considered include incineration, composting, biodegradability and recycling. “As a film supplier it is very difficult to establish which of these options is a priority,” said Roland Ghaye, sales manager at film supplier Taco Plastics, Cheshire, U.K., “since the different European countries have not decided what solution to adopt. There are continuing communications between raw materials suppliers, film converters and diaper manufacturers,” he added.

Thin is In, Breathable Is Out

Reacting to the recession and to the growing trend for thinner diapers, compressed packing and the whole “less is more” concept, diaper film suppliers have reduced costs by making thinner films. “Source reduction to the diaper manufacturers and consumers is a key part of the development of environmentally friendly films,” said Mr. Prince of Tredegar. “We are using less plastic per diaper, yet not affecting the strength requirements of the product.”

“If we can reduce the gauge, increase the yield and maitain performance, we’re offering something of value to our customers,” added Mr. Crimmin of CT Film.

On the other said of the coin are breathable films, which have sparked interest among film suppliers for the past several years, but have not been able to overcome the stigma of high price with low perceived value. While manufacturers agree that breathability is a positive asset, the question of whether it is necessary-or desirable-in baby diaper films has not been determined.

Major suppliers, both in the U.S. and Europe, agree on this issue. It is a topic every company is monitoring, researching or considering, but no company has yet to move forward with plans to market breathable films. The answer is the same in the field of adult incontinence products, where to an even greater extent, cost is a predominant factor, as most of the consumers have a fixed income and cannot afford to pay for breathability.

One commercial film that has stirred interest among baby diaper producers is “Teslin,” a porous, breathable film from PPG Industries, Pittsburgh, PA. The film, introduced in March, 1991, has a very high porosity and a soft hand, but is currently not used in any diaper products. The company’s Dennis Leatherman said, “There has been some interest from diaper suppliers, who believe we have a superior product; however, it is hard to justify the cost to the baby diaper market.” He said the performance characteristics were on the high end of the spectrum, while the pricing fell in medium range.

Expansions And Introductions

Throughout the industry, capacity increases and new product introductions have marked the past 18 months of activity. Expansions in particular have made news at several of the companies.

In the past two years, CT Film, Schaumburg, IL, has been active in terms of acquisitions, joint ventures and expansions. It began by signing an agreement with Mitsui Toatsu Chemical in early 1990 to distribute the Japanese company’s films in the U.S., then continued by acquiring PolyPac, Dalton, GA, a manufacturer of blown coextruded films that also has printing and bag making capabilities in June of that year. Major markets at PolyPac-which has annual capacity of 45 million pounds-are medical and food packaging; this acquisition strengthened CT’s position in the blown film area.

In cast films, CT has completed its Western plant expansion in Salt Lake City, UT. According to Mr. Crimmin, the plant, which was up and running last May, includes two cast film lines and assorted coextrusion and blown lines.

Also in the final stages is the completion of CT’s coextruded cast embossed film expansion at its Chippewa Fall, WI, plant, which should be on-line next month. The line was moved from a plant in Los Angeles, CA that was closed a year ago. The expansions target personal care, medical and agricultural markets.

In other news at CT, parent company Rexene Industries is in prenegotiated Chapter 11 proceedings and working on debt restructuting, but Mr. Crimmin said it has been “business as usual” at CT, with the film supplier not affected by the Chapter 11 proceedings.

At Tredegar Film Products, expansion is also in the news. The company announced in February that it will open a manufacturing facility in Tacoma, WA for the disposable diaper and personal hygiene products industries.

The new 80,000 sq. foot facility, which increases the company’s number of U.S. plants to nine (including one technical centers), is expected to be up and running by the fourth quarter of this year. The plant represents a significant improvement in Tredegar’s ability to serve Far East customers, said a company release. Tredegar also has a plant in Kerkrade, The Netherlands.

Taco Plastics has introduced a super soft double sided treated film as well as a low gauge/high strength film. These new intros add to Taco’s line of five-layer coextruded double side treated films, which target adult and baby diapers and feminine hygiene. Taco has also installed a second extrusion line on its cast coextruded line, with an annual capacity of 13,000 tons.

Mr. Ghaye of Taco said that requirements for the European diaper film market-which is showing growth of 2.5% per year-include high specification film for high performance machines, soft textile-like films and coextruded films.

Karl Sengewald, Westfalen, Germany, reports that it has changed its focus in the past several years away from cast extruded diaper backsheets and created a range of specialty films for other markets, such as san pro and medical. The change in focus comes because of overcapacity in the market and because P&G, which has more than 50% of the market, uses mainly blown films.

About 50% of film sales at Sengewald target the hygiene and medical industry. The company produces cast and blown extruded film; it provides embossed and plain films for the diaper and sanitary protection industries, as well as packing for baby and adult diapers and sanitary napkins.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Rodman Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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