VTT promotes a circular economy of hospital textiles with new cleaning and manufacturing methods

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Hospitals consume enormous amounts of disposable nonwoven products, such as sheets and wipes. They are produced using non-renewable natural resources, and after use the products go directly to waste. If hospital textiles were made of recycled materials, their environmental impact would be significantly reduced. This could be achieved with the help of new cleaning and manufacturing methods. 

The fibre materials used in hospital textiles must meet high quality standards and be sufficiently clean and strong. No compromises can be made on these properties, but, at the same time, synthetic materials should be replaced with sustainable alternatives. The Finnish-Swedish NordicBio joint project developed processes for using recycled materials in hospital textiles. One of the processes is the cleaning of fibres, as mechanically recycled fibre is not suited for hospital use as such. 

Good results with detergent cleaning – use can also be extended beyond hospital textiles

VTT examined sufficiently reliable and affordable methods for cleaning fibres. Detergent cleaning proved to function well: the hygiene of fibres can be guaranteed with chemicals used in laundries and sufficiently high temperatures. Stronger chemicals can also be used for removing colour from fibres. 

“If hospitals approve cleaned fibre, the process can also be utilised elsewhere. This would open opportunities for using such fibres everywhere,” says Pirjo Heikkilä, Senior Scientist at VTT. 

Effective cleaning could, for example, improve  consumers' attitudes towards clothes made of recycled materials. “I believe that the circular economy of textiles will have a significant economic impact and it will create new SMEs and jobs,” says Jani Lehto, Head of Research Area at VTT.

Foam laying technology produces strong non-woven fabric

VTT also examined the suitability of the foam laying process for the manufacture of nonwoven fabrics intended for hospital use. The foam laying technology resembles paper production, but in the manufacturing process aqueous foam instead of water is used as a carrier medium. Such technology burdens the environment less than traditional wet pressing, as the process consumes significantly less water.

Foam laying produced uniform fibre fabric and achieved the desired strength. The concept is not yet finalised, since the fabric produced was thicker than the present alternatives. The next step is to make thinner nonwoven fabric without losing strength. 

Cooperation across the entire value chain

The NordicBio project was funded by Business Finland and Vinnova. The other Finnish participant in the project in addition to VTT was Pure Waste Textile Oy and there were six other partners from Sweden involved. 

Pure Waste Textile Oy studied the manufacturing of yarn and hospital clothing from the fibre cleaned by VTT. The Swedish partners provided VTT with recycled textile fibre, tested other manufacturing processes and added the necessary coatings to the nonwoven rolls produced by VTT in an industrial lamination process. Stockholms Landstig hospital defined requirements and evaluated the suitability of the products produced for hospital use. 

The entire value chain of hospital textiles from fibre collection to use was involved in the project. The work will now continue in VTT's Telaketju projects, which are building a circular economy ecosystem for textiles in Finland.

Report about VTT activities in NordciBIo project is available online (Nonwovens from Mechanically Recycled Fibres for Medical Applications and VTT results will be reported also in Finnish-Swedish Textile Circularity Day on January 14th 2021 event co-organized by NordicBio and Telaketju projects: 
Finnish-Swedish Textile Circularity Day

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Pirjo Heikkilä

Pirjo Heikkilä

Senior Scientist