Nonwovens / Technical Textiles


Pandemic & nonwovens industry response: challenges turned into opportunities - a resilient and recession-proof industry?

In the upcoming online version of OUTLOOK™20, a whole session is dedicated on the Nonwovens industry response to the pandemic. Jacques Prigneaux, Market Analysis & Economic Affairs Director at EDANA, reflects on what has been done by the association, its members and the industry.

When did EDANA first become aware that Covid-19 might become a problem and what was your initial response?

Being understandably ‘close to the coalface’ on this topic we were engaged very early on, actively tracking supply chain issues and the challenges for authorities since March. EDANA was drawn into an instantaneous role as an advisor and facilitator to a wide range of public and private-sector players. Early in the pandemic, government and European Union officials who previously knew little about facemasks and nothing at all about the nonwoven fabrics that go into them needed to get up to speed overnight.

EDANA was proactive in flagging the issues, writing to the European Commission, requesting its support in working with Member States to ensure that all production facilities where these products are manufactured are kept fully operational in the interest of public health. EDANA has been recognized by the European Commission as the voice of industry on all issues relevant to the nonwoven-based face masks supply chain.

Over the last five months, EDANA has also been liaising with partner associations including MedTech Europe, ESF, and EURATEX to ensure sufficient supplies of essential public health equipment.

EDANA was also busy from the off working to see how supply could match up with demand. One of its first steps was to conduct a survey, subsequently updated, of meltblown lines with appropriate charging equipment, and meltblown manufacturers who might be able to adapt their machines to make the facemask grade, as well as surveying facemask operations requiring meltblown.

Overall, you could group our activities under three headings:

  • counselling national government and EU officials on industry issues and challenges and relaying the supply chain concerns to authorities
  • dealing with practical issues related to major roadblocks including a scarcity of meltblown capacity in the Union and the need for appropriate testing and standards
  • and contributing to the emerging discussion about how to maintain adequate long-term surge capacity for future crises

In retrospect, how well prepared would you say the authorities were for the spike in demand for facemasks and PPE?

It’s a tough question, the situation surprised us all. This is an industry used to long term, reasonably stable demand and established supply lines. Authorities understandably did not have need to pay attention to many of the specifics. What impressed me was the speed in reacting to such an unforeseeable development by both industry and the authorities. The rapid reaction by a number of producers in adapting lines and prioritising mask production has been impressive. In mid-April if you were looking for meltblown I would have said you won’t get any before the third quarter or even the fourth quarter. However, now all kinds of people are adding capacity. Many of the authorities have matched this momentum where possible and most have done a good job in liaising with the relevant players.

What subsequent actions have been put in place specifically by nonwovens manufacturers?

EU production of face masks, essential for tackling the coronavirus crisis, is set to increase 20-fold by November this year compared to pre-crisis times. This means that EU-based producers will be able to make the equivalent of 1.5 billion three-layer masks a month. These figures show how EDANA’s members in the nonwovens sector have responded in record time to the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic and the call by EU and national authorities to ramp up production of face masks to protect public health.”

To meet the ongoing challenges EDANA and our members convened a new sector group representing face mask converters, nonwoven suppliers, testing laboratories and equipment manufacturers to work together to develop an independent and self-sufficient supply chain for medical face masks and personal protective masks in the EU. The group works to ensure adherence to applicable European Standards and to encourage responsible product stewardship throughout the life cycle of face-masks from raw material sourcing to end-of-life solutions. During the OUTLOOK session the output of the meetings held by this group will be presented.

What lessons will be learned for the future and how will Covid-19 influence the industry’s drive to develop more sustainable products and processes?

In short, evaluation and preparation. It was notoriously difficult to estimate the quantities needed but this has improved. Local production has also been prioritised. The Commission took steps to ensure that nonwovens plants were considered to be essential services. It also set up the Emergency Support Instrument, with a budget of €2.7 billion, to make expenditures to fight COVID-19. It immediately set aside €100 million to buy “healthcare related material”. The Commission also established the strategic rescEU medical stockpile along with a related distribution system, with upto €380 million available for purchase of medical supplies. The stockpile includes ventilators, PPEs, medicines and laboratory supplies.

Product innovation will be important in meeting future challenges and we know many of our members are investigating alternates to meltblown.

What about the issue of the disposal of these products? There will be so many, could they be an environmental hazard?

Indeed, this unprecedented spike in demand for masks and other PPE equipment has meant billions of these products placed on the market with the resulting implications for refuse collection and yes, unfortunately, litter. The ability for recycling of face masks/respirators and ideas for circular economy concepts is a key point in one of the presentations at OUTLOOK which will include a number of presentations from expert actors covering much of what we’ve discussed above.

Related News
Latest News Nonwovens / Technical Textiles
More News from EDANA
Latest News