Briefing: The Next Steps for Flushable Wipes

Sales of flushable wipes are mainly driven by convenience, hygiene, performance, cost and customer eco-perception. But what is next for the market as a whole, and what developments will we see over coming years? In this exclusive bulletin, Smithers Pira reveals the four top things to look out for in the flushable wipes industry.

Flushable Wipes IndustryFlushable wipes range from adult moist toilet tissue and toddler toilet care to feminine hygiene wipes, and the sector is growing all the time. The total flushable wipes market is estimated at 55,720 tonnes, or about $1.4 billion in sales according to The Future of Flushable Wipes to 2020, a new market report from Smithers Pira.

Sales are predominantly down to suitability, cleanliness and price, but what can we expect from the market in the future, and what imminent changes do you need to prepare for? Smithers Pira identifies four major aspects that you need to be aware of in the flushable wipes industry.

1. A change in nonwoven substrates

The choice and selection of nonwoven substrates for flushable wipes is changing. Why? Mainly due to concerns that historical problems with performance in wastewater systems will lead to unrealistic or excessively difficult governmental regulations. For example, 'flushable by size' products have caused problems in the US, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

Equally importantly, petroleum based non-biodegradable fibres have rapidly increased in price (as has petroleum) to the point that they are now approaching and even surpassing historically expensive biodegradable fibres like rayon and cotton. What was once a trade-off between price and biodegradability has now become much closer and much less of an issue.

Wood pulp, even near its historical high price, still costs less than 50% of the least expensive petroleum based fibre used in wipes. While the prices of wood pulp, rayon and cotton may increase with time, most experts agree that petroleum based fibres will definitely increase in price with time, and at rates exceeding those of non-petroleum based fibres. This has led to a widespread rethink of the substrates used in flushable nonwovens.

2. Increased use of wood pulp and cotton

Following on from this, a second important trend is the increased use of wood pulp and cotton in flushable wipes. Wood pulp is, and has been, an obvious choice for cost reduction. Historically, airlaid has had an advantage in the ability to incorporate very high levels of wood pulp (commercial products at 85-90% are common), while spunlace and airlace have been limited to around 50% wood pulp. Today, 60-70% wood-containing spunlaces are commercial, and Suominen's HYDRASPUN Dispersible Substrate hydroentangled wetlaid product used in private label moist toilet tissue contains almost 80% pulp.

Wood pulp is the most sustainable raw material used in wipes, and cotton in both airlaid and spunlace nonwovens is still moderately popular with consumers. Producers are also becoming more interested as the price differential between cotton and other fibres like Rayon and polypropylene diminishes; regenerated cotton is even more sustainable, and available at a lower cost than virgin cotton used in nonwoven wipes. It is expected that this material will become more common in the flushable wipes market in the future, as more suppliers produce it.

3. A move away from 'flushable by size' to truly dispersible wipes

Most importantly, there has been a marked move away from 'flushable by size' to truly dispersible wipes. In 2001, when Kimberly-Clark attempted to accelerate market growth in the adult moist toilet tissue market with the introduction of Cottonelle Rollwipes, it was the first major commercial dispersible wipe. Their major branded and private label competitors countered with flushable by size products. Rollwipes failed to generate the projected rapid sales increases desired, and within a few years, they disappeared.

Rollwipes, besides being dispersible, were sold as pre-moistened wipes on a roll. There were numerous issues with this format, from technical problems with the required dispenser to marketing issues with the presentation. When sales growth failed to meet projections, Kimberly-Clark eliminated the roll format and sold the wipe itself as a sheeted product in a tub which was flushable by size. At this point, all major products servicing the adult moist toilet tissue market were flushable by size. Surprisingly, with only modest marketing support, the adult moist toilet tissue segment grew. Today, this segment is the largest sub-segment in the personal care wipes market segment, a high value and growing segment.

The difference between 2001 and 2013 is that adult moist toilet tissue products from Kimberly-Clark, Procter and Gamble and major private label converters today are dispersible not flushable by size. These products meet the INDA /EDANA guidelines on flushability; so this change appears to be driven primarily by concerns about regulatory action, not by consumer demand.

4. Thermo embossing to hydro embossing

In the past, hydro embossing has had disadvantages in processing speed and emboss quality in lightweight products, it has also required capital investment. Price (volatility and magnitude) for polypropylene fibre led to a major move by nonwovens producers away from this fibre. Procter and Gamble, using spunlace produced with Fibervisions' trilobal polypropylene fibre, is one of the major holdouts. This then accelerated the move to hydroembossing.

Hydroembossing does not include the thermal bonds usually caused by thermal embossing (these thermal bonds are usually irreversible in wastewater systems); and is therefore ideal for flushable wipes. Now, all natural fibre products are feasible, making biodegradability and flushability an easier target.

Finally, there is a global consumer trend to sustainable products. As economic stress is relieved, the consumer can begin to buy with their conscience again. The developed regions will lead this movement (US, Western Europe, Japan) but even developing markets have consumer segments which value sustainability. Flushable wipes are inherently sustainable products, with almost all residual components ending up as a useful soil amendment rather than a landfill problem.

Need to know more about the future of flushable wipes? Our report, The Future of Flushable Wipes to 2020, is available to purchase now.