The flushable wipes market continues to grow at an elevated rate despite a slow growing global economy and a nonwovens market which has also slowed as a result. In 2015, flushable wipes accounted for $1.4 billion in sales, which is a significant increase from $796 million in 2010. Projections are for sales to increase further to $2.7 billion by 2020.
The sale of flushable wipes is driven by convenience, hygiene, performance, cost and consumer eco-perception. The selection of nonwoven substrates for flushable wipes is driven by concerns about current and potential regulations, as well as the supply/price of raw materials. Other key drivers and trends for this market include:
For important flushable wipe types, like adult moist toilet tissue, toddler toilet care, and feminine hygiene wipes, the combined convenience of disposal (in the location where used) with the hygienic removal of the soiled wipe immediately from the household, is a major purchase driver. Nevertheless, the consumer has demonstrated that the labelling of a poor performing or expensive wipes with “flushable” or “biodegradable” is not enough to drive sales. But for equal performing and value products, sustainability is perceived by the consumer as a sales driver. There is a global consumer trend to sustainable products; as economic stress is relieved, the consumer starts to buy again with their conscience. The developed regions will lead this movement (US, Western Europe, Japan), but even developing markets have consumer segments which value sustainability.
Changes in substrate choice
The choice and selection of nonwoven substrates for flushable wipes is changing and these changes are driven by concerns that historical problems with performance in wastewater systems will lead to unrealistic or excessively difficult governmental regulations. “Flushable by size” products have caused problems in the US, in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Sweden. Equally important, petroleum based non-biodegradable fibres have been extremely volatile in price and supply. What once was a trade-off between price and biodegradability has now become much closer. Wood pulp, even near its historical high price, is still less than 50% of the least expensive petroleum based fibre used in wipes.
Shift from ‘flushable by size’ to dispersible
One of the most important trends in flushable wipes is the move away from “flushable by size” to truly dispersible wipes. In 2001, 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. Kimberly-Clark launched a massive advertising campaign to support the product introduction, and built a large airlaid nonwovens line to supply their proprietary, patented product. Their major branded and private label competitors countered with “flushable by size” products. As is widely known, Cottonelle Rollwipes failed to generate the projected rapid sales increases desired, and within a few years Rollwipes disappeared. Rollwipes, besides being dispersible, was sold as a premoistened wipe on a roll. There were a myriad of issues with this format, from technical problems with the required dispenser to marketing issues with the presentation. When sales growth rates failed to meet projections, Kimberly-Clark first cut the massive advertising campaign, then eliminated the roll format and sold the wipe itself as a sheeted product in a tub, and finally actually gave up on the dispersible substrate, selling a moist toilet tissue 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 wipe 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 2015 is that adult moist toilet tissue products from Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble, and major private label converters today are dispersible, not “flushable by size”. These products meet the INDA/EDANA guidelines on flushability. This appears to be driven primarily by fear of regulatory action, not consumer demand.
Increased use of wood pulp and cotton
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% wood pulp are common), while spunlace (and airlace) have been limited to around 50% wood pulp. Today, 60-70% wood pulp spunlace products are commercial and Suominen’s HydraspunTM hydroentangled wetlaid product used in private label moist toilet tissue has almost 80% pulp. The new wetlace production lines being installed all over the globe also use high levels of wood pulp. Wood pulp is the most sustainable raw material used in wipes. 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 diminish. And regenerated cotton is more sustainable and lower cost than virgin cotton and now used in wipes nonwovens. It is expected that this material will become more common in flushable wipes in the future, as more suppliers develop.
Change towards hydroembossing
A third important trend is the change from thermal embossing to hydroembossing. Hydroembossing has had disadvantages in processing speed, emboss quality in lightweight products, and has required capital investment. Price (volatility and magnitude) for polypropylene fibre led to a major move by nonwovens producers away from this fibre. Procter & Gamble, using spunlace produced with Fibervisions’ trilobal polypropylene fibre, is one of the major holdouts. This 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; hydroembossing is ideal for flushable wipes. Now, all natural fibre products are feasible, making biodegradability and flushability an easier target.
The Future of Flushable Wipes to 2020 contains further global market data and analysis and is available to purchase and download online.