EXCLUSIVE WITH LENZING’S JÜRGEN EIZINGER: Greener by design

EXCLUSIVE WITH LENZING’S JÜRGEN EIZINGER: Greener by design

June 12, 2019
Nick Bradley

Lenzing’s Jürgen Eizinger reveals to Nick Bradley how greater labeling transparency in the world of wipes is paving the way for sustainable, biodegradable materials to supersede plastic-based variants

Consumerism has spiraled out of control over the past half-century, leading to a society wherein we veer towards products that are convenient, disposable and low-cost. Catering to that need, manufacturers have come to the fore with items that are purposefully designed to have very short lifespans, after which they are disposed of or replaced. As we are now seeing, the convenience of these single-use items has come with a devastating environmental cost – pollution on land and at sea, depletion of resources and threats to entire eco-systems and species, including our own.

Years from now – when most of us have long since turned up our toes while the plastics buried alongside us barely show any sign of degradation – those lucky enough to be living on what’s left of this planet will likely look back upon this convenience-obsessed era in sheer disbelief, all the while lamenting our foolishness.

Disposable wipes are one of the fastest-growing causes of pollution on our beaches, in our rivers and are way out in front as the biggest pollutant in our increasingly clogged sewer systems

If pushed to select a product that sums up this folly the most, the majority would probably point to plastic bottles, plastic straws or carrier bags – they’re the headline-grabbing culprits after all. Yet in actual fact disposable wipes are one of the fastest-growing causes of pollution on our beaches, in our rivers and are way out in front as the biggest pollutant in our increasingly clogged sewer systems.

Very often wipes include synthetic fibers, polyester or polypropylene in the main, which can be consumed by marine life and ultimately even consumed by us. What goes around comes around.

And we’re using billions upon billions of the things. One manufacturer in the USA produces 125 billion of them on its own every single year. At roughly 15cm2, they would stretch to the moon and back… 24 times. And that’s just one company.

Certainly, the EU acknowledges the wet wipe’s adverse environmental impact, since they were listed among the 10 items to be targeted in its recent pan-European crackdown on single-use plastic. “The Single-Use Plastics Directive is a vital step in fighting marine litter,” acknowledges Jürgen Eizinger, vice president of Global Business Management, Nonwovens, at the Austrian fiber producer Lenzing. “This shall be achieved by the requirement for brands and retailers to disclose the presence of plastics in wipes and to inform consumers about appropriate waste management options. For Lenzing, this presents a tremendous opportunity as our VEOCEL-branded fibers offer a sustainable alternative to replace plastic materials in wipes.”

The aforementioned emphasis on ‘sustainable’ is key. Lenzing’s background is in the production of fibers made from the renewable resource wood and stretches back more than 80 years, long before ‘sustainable’ became in vogue. While its TENCEL brand remains its flagship product for textiles and fashion, used by companies such as Levi’s, H&M, Asos and Ted Baker to name a few, VEOCEL was introduced in 2018 specifically to address single-use products such as wipes and sheet masks, but can also be applied to diapers and feminine care products.

As I have been working in the nonwovens industry for almost 20 years, I’m a particularly persistent wipes consumer. But even for me, as an expert, it’s tough sometimes to locate plastic-free products on the shelves

“We all enjoy convenience in our daily lives,” Eizinger admits. “For us, we think it’s extremely important to make an informed purchase decision when it comes to disposable products. As I have been working in the nonwovens industry for almost 20 years, I’m a particularly persistent wipes consumer. But even for me, as an expert, it’s tough sometimes to locate plastic-free products on the shelves. There’s certainly a trend towards more transparency regarding the fabric composition of wipes but there is still a long way to go until consumers can, at a glance, choose a sustainable alternative.”

That’s essentially where VEOCEL comes in. The Dutch wipes brand ‘Sweeps’ pioneers the European market by featuring the VEOCEL logo on their “Natural wipe to go” range. Consumers will now be able to make a sustainable choice simply at a glance, since VEOCEL is derived from renewable wood sources and can biodegrade fully.

We believe the VEOCEL brand to be an important vehicle through which we can educate consumers. It’s vital that we acknowledge the impact of fiber materials on the environmental compatibility of wipes

“Our VEOCEL brand is a label of trust for environmentally conscious consumers,” confirms Eizinger. “The Sweeps relationship is very exciting for our brand as it not only helps to build a stronger sustainability reputation for Lenzing, but it also signifies that brands are willing to uphold more efforts to promote eco-living and are keen to drive more conversation around the topic of sustainability. We believe the VEOCEL brand to be an important vehicle through which we can educate consumers. It’s vital that we acknowledge the impact of fiber materials on the environmental compatibility of wipes. While wood-based cellulose fibers such as lyocell and viscose have the capability to biodegrade after disposal, we are all aware that plastics can stick around for decades.”

But do the majority of consumers really care what’s in a wipe? The short answer is ‘yes’, according to Eizinger, and he has the statistics to substantiate that. In 2018, Lenzing commissioned a global survey to gain some insight into consumer preference and understanding relating to the consumption of key nonwoven products – a survey involving 3,881 respondents. More than 90% of those quizzed wanted to see a full list of fiber materials listed in the product, while more than 70% stated that they would consider signing a petition to see more transparent wet wipe labelling, two things that Lenzing has long been championing. Of great concern is that fewer than 10% believed plastic to be a raw material present in wipes in the first place.

Our survey reconfirmed an enormous discrepancy between consumer assumption about fiber materials and today’s industry practice

“It’s a misconception that has contributed to the crisis we now see in many of our cities’ sewer systems,” suggests Eizinger, referencing the propensity for consumers to just use a wipe and then flush it down the toilet, something that many of us have probably been guilty of at some stage or other. “Our survey reconfirmed an enormous discrepancy between consumer assumption about fiber materials and today’s industry practice,” the Austrian adds.

It might seem like an inconsequential thing to do – a tiny piece of fabric down a toilet and into a huge sewer system, but the environmental and financial impact of inappropriate disposal of wipes is huge. A 2017 investigation by Water UK, for instance, revealed that wet wipes in whatever guise (baby wipes, cosmetic, household cleaning products, etc) made up more than 90% of the material congealing with diapers, condoms and cooking waste to form what became dubbed as ‘fatbergs’. One of these so-called fatbergs found beneath London’s Whitechapel was 250m in length and weighed 130 tonnes, as much as 20 African elephants. UK water companies spend something in the region of £88 million a year clearing 360,000 blockages from the sewerage network.

One of these so-called fatbergs found beneath London’s Whitechapel was 250m in length and weighed 130 tonnes, as much as 20 African elephants

‘Flushability’ is an especially pertinent topic, tempered by consumer confusion surrounding biodegradability. People often confuse explicitly non-flushable wipes with those that can be flushed, in the process helping to create environmental waste. But wipes made using VEOCEL Lycocell fibers with Eco disperse technology feature high wet strength usability and can disintegrate quickly. Nonwoven fabrics with a 20:80 split of VEOCEL Lycocell fibers and wood pulp, for example, can reach up to 95% Slosh-Box disintegration within 30 minutes, which is faster than the passing benchmark of the Disintegration Test FG502 in INDA/EDANA GD4 Guidelines for Assessing the Flushability of Disposable Nonwoven Products.

“The environmental impact of inappropriately disposed-of wipes has a wider impact beyond blocked sewers, too,” states Eizinger. “Due to the presence of synthetic fibers such as polyester, the flushing of these products ultimately adds to ocean litter, in turn causing long-term damage to sea creatures and the marine environment, which is another aspect that requires drastic action.”

The increasing awareness of plastic materials in wipes and consumer awareness of more sustainable alternatives – in combination with more prominent disposal instructions – will certainly ease the burden on both our environment and the waste industry

“The increasing awareness of plastic materials in wipes and consumer awareness of more sustainable alternatives – in combination with more prominent disposal instructions – will certainly ease the burden on both our environment and the waste industry,” Eizinger concludes. “Here at Lenzing we’re striving for a future where disposable products have no negative impact at all. Our VEOCEL-branded fibers are a step in that direction, helping to maintain an environmental balance by being integrated into nature’s cycle, a true contribution to natural circularity.”

Jürgen Eizinger will be delivering a presentation at Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019, taking place at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany, on 27-28 June 2019. Delegates will hear how Lenzing hopes to pioneer a new era of responsible convenience

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