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Published: January 2011
Polypropylene is the predominant polyolefin fiber used in textile applications; polyethylene fibers are also used, though generally in small volumes and for specific applications. The physical properties of polypropylene and polyethylene, especially tensile strength, abrasion resistance and inertness to most chemicals, including water, make them well-suited for functional applications. Predominantly used in carpet and rugs and in industrial applications, polyolefin fibers have basic property limitations, such as poor dyeability and the inability to maintain a crease or pleat (polypropylene's low glass-transition temperature would cause a pleat to relax in the dryer), which have generally limited their growth potential in the apparel and home fabrics markets.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of polyolefin fibers:
The vast majority of polyolefin fibers are used in consumer products. The largest market by far is carpets and rugs (including backing material). In the past, polyolefin carpet yarns took market share away from nylon carpet face yarns in tufted and woven carpets and rugs. Advances in tufting and weaving technology have made it possible to quickly and easily produce highly complicated, eye-appealing polyolefin fiber tapestries in a variety of colors, yarn types, gauges and pile heights. Polyolefin fibers have also successfully displaced jute as the primary and secondary backing substrate for tufted carpets in virtually all parts of the world.
The second-largest use for polyolefin fiber is in nonwoven fabrics, which, depending on their manufacture and characteristics, are used in many different applications. About two-thirds of nonwoven fibers are used for sanitary and medical applications, of which diapers constitute the largest application. Other uses include agricultural fabrics, construction sheeting, automotive fabrics, geotextiles, filtration media and industrial wipes.
Global consumption of polyolefin fibers declined in 2009, to a level below that of 2007. However, early estimates indicate that a recovery in demand has occurred in 2010 as a result of a global economic rebound as well as converging PP/PET price levels.
Europe (including Europe, Turkey, and the CIS countries), the United States and China are at present the major consumers of polyolefin fibers. In Western Europe and the United States, little or no growth in consumption is expected through 2015. In these regions the nonwoven market is mature and the use of PP in carpets is being further threatened by PET filament, as a result of recent advances in dyeing technology. Growth in demand will come only from specialty markets such as artificial grass, medical applications and paper reinforcement. In contrast, consumption of polyolefin fibers will grow in developing countries in East Asia and Eastern Europe, to some extent. In these regions, consumer disposable nonwovens are still a low-volume, but fast-growing market. As workers make more money and increase their discretionary income, typically in the large cities first, convenience items become attainable. Nonwovens can be made directly from resin (e.g., spunbonded) or from staple fibers; the former continues to grow faster than the latter.