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How green is my economy?

August 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Markets, Sustainability

Environmental hyperawareness is a luxury that Europe can ill afford, according to the region’s fiber industry experts.

European synthetic fiber manufacturers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the many legislative obstacles to trade that are placed in their path—particularly those aiming for environmental protection and promoting a green economy. This message came across clearly at the recent 60th anniversary conference of the International Rayon and Synthetic Fibres Committee (CIRFS) and the Executive Seminar of the European Association of Textile Polyolefins (EATP).

These two events were held on consecutive days at the end of May in Brussels, Belgium. CIRFS (www.cirfs.org) is the representative body for the European manmade fiber industry, embodying 34 European fiber manufacturing companies and suppliers as well as four national organizations. EATP (www.eatp.org) has a further 45 members, primarily polyolefin fiber manufacturers and related suppliers and organizations.

The European industry

Colin Purvis has led CIRFS since 1994, and has also served as director general of the EATP for the last decade. At the end of 2010 he will step down from both positions, but will be remembered for the many successful initiatives he’s driven on behalf of the European manmade fibers industry.

In looking at the development of this industry over the past half century, he observed that in 1950, Europe, the U.S.A. and Japan dominated in manmade fiber production, which was just 1.7 million tons, with 96 percent cellulosic-based (rayon) output, rather than synthetic. Today, however, synthetic fibers dominate overall global fiber production—a total of 71 million tons in 2009—and China is the undisputed leader. Europe (including Turkey) remains the second largest manmade fiber producer in the world.

As EATP president Selim Akdogan pointed out, Europe is still the largest exporter of acrylic and cellulosic fibers and home to the world’s largest single-site production units for them. It holds the second position globally in the production of ultra high-strength and aramid fibers behind Japan, and is also the largest producer of polypropylene fibers.

The Greater European consumption of polypropylene textile products—generally with technical end uses—fell from 2.3 million tons in 2008 to 2.1 million tons in 2009, according to early market projections provided by the EATP’s secretary general Albert Prisse. This was a decrease of 4.8 percent, on the back of a 6.2 percent drop in 2008 compared to 2007. Of the 2009 figure, 655,000 tons went into spunbond and meltblown nonwovens; 490,000 tons were turned into slit film and tape; 430,000 tons were used as staple fiber; 395,000 tons as multifilament fibers, 103,000 tons as strapping and 62,000 tons as monofilament.

Spunbond and meltblown nonwovens usage has continued to grow throughout the recession, as has monofilament, as a result of its substitution of slit films and tapes in synthetic grass production.

Overall, however, Prisse noted that a return to the consumption achieved in 2007 is not anticipated before 2013.

Barriers to trade

The main issues the manmade fibers industry continues to face, said Purvis, are the continued import of dumped or subsidized fiber stocks into Europe, along with export barriers to trade in other parts of the world. Akdogan added that moves in exchange rates between the euro and the dollar have led to increases in raw material prices that can’t be passed on to customers, but the low value of the euro has also had a positive impact on European competitiveness.

Action against dumped or subsidized fiber stocks is possible under European Union (EU) rules, but not easy; both EATP and CIRFS have initiated actions in the past, and are likely to do so again when deemed necessary.

European duties on fibers and textiles, meanwhile, remain low, and most developing countries get access to the EU at zero or reduced rates. By contrast, tariff barriers are high in many other countries, and often accompanied by additional duties and discriminatory standards.

Policies versus value?

Through its well-meaning intentions, however, EU directives can also be detrimental to its own industry, and Purvis singled out the EU’s Emissions Trading System as one example. In January 2005, the EU’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Trading System (EU ETS) commenced operation as the world’s largest multicountry, multisector system.

“There are very few signs that other countries will take similar action,” said Purvis, “and the result is almost no effect elsewhere but extra costs for manufacturers within Europe.”

Andreas Eule, president of CIRFS, was critical of certain European policies such as REACH (regulations on chemicals and their safe use) that came into place in 2007, while still recognizing the scheme’s general value. “REACH is just a regulation on substances and not products,” he said. “You can then import the product in from China using the same ingredients which are banned in Europe. It’s a typical example of a good idea which has been badly implemented.”

He also questioned the effectiveness of Germany’s Eco Tax system. “It has subsidized the use of renewable energy to the tune of 48 billion in the past 10 years,” he said. “That equates to 4.8 billion per year in real terms, or roughly the equivalent of 100,000 jobs. So where are these jobs? It should not be forgotten that this high cost is being paid by us to subsidize another industry. We are creating a greener industry by subsidizing jobs in it, but how many jobs are we killing in the process?

“And we are also exporting jobs directly to China. Solar cells, for instance, may have been developed in Europe, but are now manufactured almost exclusively in China.”

On the issue of fair trade, Eule cited the example of HT (high temperature) PET yarns and chips. Imports of these yarns into Europe have dropped from 1.80 to 1.30 in the last four years, he said, while the price of chips exported from Europe has stayed the same.

“This is dumping, pure and simple,” he said. “Otherwise, it implies that quality has improved by 700 percent in four years. There is no production in the world which can achieve such growth and improvement, if dumping is not involved. We need support from the European Commission to avoid these severe distortions.”

In agreeing with Eule, Prisse stated that “green energy is a luxury which Europe cannot afford. What we can afford is to be much more conscious of consumption as individual consumers,” he said. “But we never get a clear answer from Europe’s bureaucrats on the return on investment in terms of creating this green economy. How many jobs will actually be created?”

Global concerns

Charged with responding to these concerns at the EATP seminar, Luis-Filipe Girão, a textile specialist with the European Commission, conceded that environmental legislation so far only applies to companies within the EU, which has not achieved any kind of agreement on these issues with its partners around the world. “As a result, manufacturing within Europe is much more expensive,” he said. “But as part of the transition to a low carbon economy, the EU’s manufacturing industries have achieved a 30 percent reduction in energy since 1990.

“Definitely, at a certain stage, this industry was seen as a highly polluting industry; but the fact that it’s changed and that hasn’t been communicated is maybe the fault of the industry itself.

“Average citizens aren’t aware of the changes in the industry, and there is a permanent fight to get over the image of all manufacturing as a 19th century activity in Europe, with both politicians and the general public.”

Adrian Wilson is a writer and editor in the specialty textiles field, based in W. Yorkshire, U.K.

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