Abaca is mainly used for the production of speciality paper at this time, however, it has incredible environmental benefits and has been cited by the UN's FAO as a Future Fibre.
Also called manila hemp, abaca is extracted from the leaf sheath around the trunk of the abaca plant (Musa textilis), a close relative of the banana, native to the Philippines and widely distributed in the humid tropics. Harvesting abaca is labour intensive as each stalk must be cut into strips which are scraped to remove the pulp. The fibres are then washed and dried.
Abaca is a leaf fibre, composed of long slim cells that form part of the leaf's supporting structure. Lignin content is a high 15%. Abaca is prized for its great mechanical strength, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fibre length – up to 3 m. The best grades of abaca are fine, lustrous, light beige in colour and very strong.
Erosion control and biodiversity rehabilitation can be assisted by intercropping abaca in former monoculture plantations and rainforest areas, particularly with coconut palms. Planting abaca can also minimize erosion and sedimentation problems in coastal areas which are important breeding places for sea fishes. The water holding capacity of the soil will be improved and floods and landslides will also be prevented. Abaca waste materials are used as organic fertilizer.
Uses of abaca
During the 19th century, abaca was widely used for ships' rigging and pulped to make sturdy manila envelopes. Today, it is still used to make ropes, twines, fishing lines and nets, as well as coarse cloth for sacking. There is also a flourishing niche market for abaca clothing, curtains, screens and furnishings, but paper-making is currently the main use of the fibre.
Mostofabaca fibre is pulped and processed into speciality papers. This includes: tea and coffee bags, sausage casing paper, currency notes (Japan's yen banknotes contain up to 30% abaca), cigarette filter papers, medical /food preparation/disposal papers, high-quality writing paper, vacuum bags and more.
Currently, abaca is being used for ‘soft’ applications in the automotive industry as a filling material for bolster and interior trim parts. However, given its strong tensile strength, it can also be used for ‘harder’ applications for exterior semi-structure components as a substitute for glass fibre in reinforced plastic components.
Mercedes Benz has used a mixture of polypropylene thermoplastic and abaca yarn in automobile body parts. Replacing glass fibres by natural fibres can reduce the weight of automotive parts and facilitates more environmentally friendly production.
Owing to the extremely high mechanical strength of the fibre as well and recycling of the parts. as the application of abaca even in highly stressed components, lengths it offers great potential for different industrial applications.
Abaca has a high potential to substitute glass fibres in multiple automotive
Market Outlookparts and is currently well recognized as a material for paper products. Although abaca is mainly cultivated in the Philippines today, supply could be increased if other countries in tropical and humid locations were to establish industries. The knowledge and the experience about production and processing gained can easily be transferred to other countries.
Clothing & Textiles
There is also a flourishing market for abaca clothing, screens, and furnishings. The light-weight, durable and lengthy fibre allows it to be turned into clothing and other fabrics such as linens, wall coverings, hats and even shoes.
This is the reason why abaca fibre is also called universally as Manila Hemp, and abaca’s paper by-product as Manila Paper and Manila Envelope.
The Philippines is the biggest supplier of abaca fibre in the world. It supplies 85% of the needed abaca fibre globally
Today, although the material is still used to make paper, ropes, nets, and coarse cloth for sacking, the invention of nylon from petroleum-based chemicals in the 1930s signalled the decline of the abaca industry. Plastics quickly replaced the traditional use of natural fibres, causing many abaca farmers to find other means of livelihood.
Abaca can be a great future fibre for us, as with issues on plastics being harmful to our health and the planet, natural materials like Abaca are making a comeback.
Mercedes-Benz models are replacing their fibreglass with abaca as it is lighter than fibreglass,
yet has the same strength.
With material so strong yet light-weight, natural yet durable, the possible applications are endless. And just when we thought that plastic is the material of the future, natural materials like the Abaca is here to get the recognition it deserves.