Published December 2014
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 carpets and rugs and in industrial applications. However, polyolefin fibers have basic property limitations (poor dyeability and the inability to maintain a crease), 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 data for the United States and China include spunbond consumption, which overstates actual polyolefin fiber consumption:
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 have taken 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. In the last few years, olefin fibers have also been used to manufacture synthetic turf.
The second-largest use for polyolefin fiber is in nonwoven fabrics, which are used in many different applications, depending on their manufacture and characteristics. Uses include agricultural fabrics, construction sheeting, automotive fabrics, geotextiles, filtration media and industrial wipes. Staple laid consumer nonwovens are also extensively used in personal care, sanitary and medical applications, although in this markets they compete strongly with spunbond nonwovens.
Polyolefin fibers, in particular slit films and monofilament, are used in industrial applications to manufacture ropes, cordages, agricultural nets and FIBCs (flexible intermediate bulk containers). Minor applications include concrete and paper reinforcement, and sun protection textiles such as awnings, boat coverings, tents and garden furniture upholstery.
Polyolefin fibers had been one of the fastest-growing segments of the synthetic fiber industry, with growth rates of about 6%, due primarily to high growth in grassroots production capacity in developing countries and increasing use in carpets and rugs and in nonwoven fabrics in the industrialized nations. Since 2000, growth has slowed, particularly in the developed economies, as a result of the slump in carpet yarn demand as well as an escalation in the price of polypropylene (PP), which in turn affected the price of PP fibers. The economic slowdown in 2008–2009 further accentuated this trend, with the slump in the housing market (reducing demand for carpet) and a decline in government civil engineering investments (reducing demand for technical nonwovens, such as geotextiles). Rising PP resin prices also encouraged substitution by lower-cost polyester fiber, especially applications like nonwovens, where recycled PET staple fibers can be successfully employed.
China is the leading consumer of polyolefin fibers; however, if spunbond polyolefins (mainly for nonwovens) are excluded, Europe would hold the number one position. Other important players are the Middle East and Africa and India. In Europe and the United States, little or no growth in consumption is expected through 2019, with nonwoven applications for the automotive sector being the only growing end-use market.
Promising demand growth opportunities are expected in India, as the increasing population and standard of living will spur consumption of polyolefin fibers for textiles and in the nonwoven sector for both sanitary and technical applications. Slit film consumption for woven sacks and bags is also growing rapidly, as India and other Asian countries such as the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Thailand have developed into major manufacturers and exporters of woven sacks and bags for agricultural and construction industries. Growth in consumption is also expected in the Middle East, as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have developed into major producers of tufted and woven carpets to serve the growing North African market. Global consumption of polyolefin fibers is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 2.3% through 2019.