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North American Demand for Natural Fibers in Plastic Composites Forecast to Grow 15% to 50% Annually

Posted on June 6, 2000

Significant Markets Emerging in Building Products, Automotive Parts, Railroad Ties, Flower Pots, Furniture, and Marine Piers

By Kline & Company

Little Falls, New Jersey — Natural fibers, used to fill and reinforce both thermoplastics and thermosets, represent one of the fastest-growing types of polymer additives. Based on a market study currently being conducted by Kline & Company, forecast North American demand for both wood and agricultural fiber used as plastic additives ranges from 15% to 20% per year in automotive applications, to 50% or more per year in selected building products.

Preliminary estimates place the North American market for natural fibers in plastic composites at 400 million lb. Three-quarters of this volume is wood fiber; the remainder is comprised of such long agricultural fibers as kenaf, jute, hemp, flax, and sisal.

Wood fiber is primarily used in such building products as composite decking, window and door profiles, decorative trim, and railings. According to Carl Eckert, senior vice president at Kline, “At loading levels that range from 30% to 70% by weight, 40 to 400 mesh wood fiber produces a composite with excellent aesthetics and better moisture, crack, and warp resistance compared to wood.” Composite decking is typically made from HDPE or LDPE combined with 40 to 60 mesh wood fiber, while window and door profiles are primarily 80 to 200 mesh wood fiber compounded with PVC.

The current price of wood fiber averages 10c a lb, making it comparable to such low-priced fillers as calcium carbonate. “The only problem is that the growth in demand is expected to be so fantastic that availability of wood fiber might become a problem,” according to Eckert.

Long natural fibers, including flax, kenaf, and hemp are also finding increasing use, but here the applications are mostly in automotive composites. Typical long fiber composites include such interior components as door trim, package trays, and rear shelves. These composites are primarily compression- molded polypropylene where the loading of the natural fiber is 50%.

The primary driving force for these new automotive materials is economics, since natural fibers are currently priced at one-third of the cost of fiberglass or less. Other reasons for their increasing use include:

  • Weight reduction—these fibers are half the weight of fiberglass
  • Recycling—natural fiber composites are easier to recycle
  • Green movement—desire for natural products

Although polyethylene, PVC, and polypropylene are the dominant polymers utilizing natural fibers, their use is also common in phenolics, polyester, polystyrene, and several other polymer systems. In addition, uses are not limited to building products and automotive parts. Significant markets are also emerging in such applications as railroad ties, flower pots, furniture, and marine piers.

Kline’s study, Opportunities for Natural Fibers in Plastic Composites, 1999, assesses the current and forecast market for a variety of natural fibers in all types of plastic applications, including building products, automotive, and industrial/consumer applications. The study will also profile leading producers of both fibers and composites and identify growth opportunities.

Established in 1959, Kline is an international business consulting firm serving the chemicals and materials industries. The company is considered the leading consultancy on reinforcements and fillers for plastics and composite materials.

Copyright © 2000, Kline & Company. All rights reserved.