I have grown up exposed to abaca, a type of tree that closely resembles a banana plant. I have played with its fibres, I have watched my Papa make ropes out of it and even weave beautiful solihiya hammocks and chairs. I have grown up using abaca bags and, at certain points of my childhood, worn clothes and slippers made of abaca for school dances and activities. While I have appreciated the beauty of its fibres, and the many products that can be made out of it through the years, I must admit that it is only now that I truly realised its wonders. I am so proud that the humble abaca I have been playing with in my childhood is being used all over the world for sustainability purposes.
What is abaca?
Abaca’s scientific name is Musa textilis. It’s also known as Manila hemp, Cebu hemp, or Davao hemp. Unfortunately, it has never been rightfully called Bicol hemp, from the region that produces the most abaca in the Philippines. But just to be clear, abaca is different from hemp. Rather, it is a close relative of the banana tree and belongs to the Musaceae family. It has overlapping leaves on its fleshy stalks and it is in these stalks where the abaca fibres are obtained. Abaca is sought after because it is strong, flexible, and resistant to being damaged by saltwater (much like the very resilient people of Bicol who remain strong despite living in the Philippines’ typhoon belt, although that is a story for another day).
How is it grown and processed?
This crop grows best in well-draining loamy soils. Abaca is propagated by planting mature rootstock and it is usually done at the beginning of the rainy season. It takes 18 to 24 months before the plant can be harvested and used as raw material for different purposes.
Processing can be done by hand or machine. It involves pulling off the plant’s outer layer from its petiole and then scraping the pulpy material to be able to get to the fibre strands. These strands are then dried either mechanically or under the sun. After this, they are cleaned and sorted according to the market needs.
The abaca fibres come in different colors. They can be white, brown, purple, red or black. It all depends on the variety of the crop and where the stalks are located. If you want the strongest fibres, you can get them from the plant’s outer covers.
What is abaca used for?
Today, abaca is used for specialty papers such as currency notes, tea and coffee bags, vacuum bags, cigarette filter paper, sausage casing paper, and high-quality writing paper. Japan, one of the top importers of this fibre, uses abaca for their yen banknotes. Abaca is also used to make twines, ropes, and fishing lines and nets.
There is also a growing demand for using sustainable fibres in the fashion industry where Manila hemp is used for clothing and home decors. Many fashion companies are now realising the importance of using sustainable fibres for making clothes. It is paving the way for the use of hemp and other eco-friendly materials to be used in clothing production.
Terranova Papers in Spain turns abaca fibres into coffee filter paper, tea bag paper, battery pasting tissue paper, adhesive tapes, and sachet porous paper for rodenticides. The company is committed to sustainability and hence the specific use of this eco-friendly fibre. By choosing abaca, they can “promote the responsible management of the world’s forests.” They are also confident that the products that they offer are socially and environmentally responsible.
Simor uses this sustainable fibre for making garments as well as decorative and tabletop accessories. You’ll be amazed how aesthetically appealing their finished products are from their textile, furniture, to fixtures. No wonder, they’ve been in business for more than four decades now and still going strong – just like the abaca plant.
Because of its strength and length, abaca fibre is now being used in the automotive industry for certain car parts. For example, Mercedes Benz has opted to use abaca instead of glass fibres for the underbody cover of their Klasse model. According to the luxury car brand, they were able to save as much as 60% of energy since they started using abaca fibres. This means that their manufacturing process is more environment-friendly with significantly reduced CO2 emissions. These are just some of the companies in different industries that use abaca fibres as raw materials for the products that they offer.
Why is abaca sustainable?
Abaca is a sustainable fibre because it can be made into various products that answer the present needs and demands in our society without having to compromise environmental standards. Its production has a low environmental impact and it’s a renewable resource; can be grown and harvested with very little chemical processing. It is a good thing that there is a growing preference for this fibre since it is recognised as the “strongest among all natural fibres in the world.” It is said to have superior qualities over other materials such as man-made fibres like plastics and synthetic materials. This explains why this raw material is now being used in various industries as mentioned earlier.
It is worthy to note the environmental benefits of the abaca plant. Its water-holding capacity prevents soil erosion, landslides and floods. It protects farming communities from possible disasters. Since abaca can also be planted along with other crops and plants, such as coconut palms, it promotes biodiversity rehabilitation. This is the opposite of monoculture plantations that destroy the nutrients of the soil and lead to the use of harmful chemicals that pollute groundwater supplies, ultimately destroying the natural ecosystems around it. Even the waste materials of abaca production are used by farmers as organic fertilisers which still benefits the environment.
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For the local communities where abaca is produced, it is a source of livelihood for thousands of families. In the Philippines, this crop is cultivated by 122,758 farmers. It also helps boost the Philippine economy with export earnings reaching an average of $97.1 million per year, making it one of the top agricultural products of the archipelago nation.
The Philippines is the leading producer of abaca worldwide, supplying almost 90% of the global demand for this sustainable fibre. From October to December 2020 alone, the country produced 17.61 thousand metric tonnes of abaca fibre. Most of the products that are exported are abaca pulp, yarns, cordage, fibre crafts and raw fibre. The leading importers of abaca products are Europe, the US and Japan.
The Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA) is in charge of developing the country’s abaca industry and ensures that it can “meet the global demands for renewable and environment-friendly materials.” There is continuous research and development to be able to produce high-yielding and disease-resistant crops and improve the automation of fibre extraction to make it less labor-intensive. PhilFIDA is also working to obtain global certification so customers are assured that Philippine abaca is not just made of the highest quality of fibres but also compliant with international sustainability standards. This certification is also required by some companies before they engage in trade and commerce with local farmers. PhilFIDA is also conducting farm expansion and rehabilitation programs so that more regions can be involved in abaca production. Through this, the Philippines will be able to meet the growing demand for this sustainable fibre especially now that various industries are realising its potential.
The Future of this ‘Future Fibre‘
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization calls this plant the “future fibre.” And it is very apt indeed. With more companies being committed to sustainability, they are discovering new ways to use this strong and flexible sustainable fibre. The possibilities are endless. Abaca is likely to be used in diverse industries and I personally couldn’t be more pleased because it is good for the environment, and it gives more families in local communities, especially my hometown, the chance to live better lives and have a brighter future.
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Cover image via Reformation.