In search of investments to enter the worldwide economy, abaca is valued as the main income sources in Philippine’s economy and an eco-friendly replacement to reinforced polymers
Manila hemp – also known as abaca fiber
Hard fibers like Manila hemp – also known as abaca fiber – have become a commodity for Southeast Asian countries in modern times. The fiber is sourced from the abaca plant (Musa texitilis), which belongs to the Musaceae family, with 12-30 stalks stemming from a central root system; each of the stalks can grow up to eight meters and they are mechanically stripped, peeled or decorticated to produce the abaca fiber. The obtained fiber measures from 1.5 to 3.5 centimeters and can be white, brown, red, black or purple in color. Its stiffness and strength are imparted by three micro-structural features: a high Runkel ratio, which denotes a high empty cavity within the fiber, a high cellulose to hemicellulose and lignin content, and a microfibril angle with orientation close to the fiber bundle, that allows the fiber – whose length can measure up to 3 meters – to be involved in the processing of highly stressed components. The fiber of abaca or Manila hemp offers great potential for different industrial applications: it is used as a material for the manufacture of ship rigging, machinery ropes, packaging twine and paper. Abaca fiber-reinforced composites can also exhibit better strength without substantial weight gain – characteristics that have been exploited in various commercial and technological uses, including a wide range of applications such as in the automobile and construction industries. Nowadays, abaca is produced by smallholders in the Philippines, who have neither access to high-yielding and disease resistant varieties nor have the machinery needed for proper processing of the raw material. There is also a market share asking for abaca clothing: garments made from Manila hemp have moisture-wicking properties and prevent heat and moisture absorption even though the fiber is difficult to weave in the textile manufacturing process and it wrinkles easily. For these reasons, abaca fiber clothing has never been mass-produced. The use of natural plant fibers as a reinforcement in Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) to replace synthetic fibers such as glass and carbon fibers, is receiving recent attention. The renewable resources with low density and high specific strength – such as flax, bamboo, pineapple, silk, jute, kenaf and ramie fibers – are being employed for the development of biodegradable composites and compostable resins, and researches on molding condition, mechanical properties and interfacial bonding are carried out.
Lampoon reporting – abaca fiber as a substitute for glass fiber
Today abaca production represents more than seventy-five percent of the total income of the Philippines, the world’s leading producer. According to the latest Philippine financial quadrennial report, abaca domestic industry and total exports and manufacture will generate an average of 97.1 million dollars per year. Some of them come from abaca manufacturing in pulp, cordage, yarns, fabrics and fiber crafts, processed into specialty papers, including tea and coffee bags, sausage casing paper, currency notes, cigarette filter papers, medical and food preparation or disposal papers, high-quality writing paper, and vacuum bags, and also for soft applications in the automotive industry as a filling material for bolster and interior trim parts. As verified by recent discoveries in the scientific field, given the fiber’s strong tensile strength, abaca could also be used for harder applications for exterior semi-structure components as a substitute for glass fiber, a material whose fabrication operations can produce emissions of toxic air pollutants, including styrene, a reactive substance connected to ground-level ozone. As stated in a report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, replacing glass fibers with natural fibers such as abaca can reduce the weight of automotive parts, facilitating more environmentally friendly production and recycling of parts. It is also known to be durable and resistant to seawater, which is why it is used for the production of marine and naval cordage, with even higher tensile flexural strength than glass fibers, as well as nylon and rayon. There have also been attempts at creating hybrid composites made of Manila hemp and glass fibers that exhibited better ductility, elongation, flexural strength and modulus knowing that, on the other hand, they would take more time to biodegrade and would release micro pollutants if used underwater. On this matter, depending on the type of treatments and amount of agents used, the properties of natural fibers can be enhanced, reduced or resemble the same features found in polymers. When carefully treated and developed, natural fiber composites can have comparable properties to the existing synthetic fiber composites.
The ecological advantages of the use of abaca fiber
In the Philippines, a total area of about two million hectares was planted with coconut palms within the last century, both in the lowlands and along the hillsides. The intensive farming and the cutting down of trees for the industries has created vast open lands left idle for long periods of time, causing soil erosion that resulted not only in the reduction of soil fertility and water holding capacity but also sedimentation problems in the coastal areas and even flash floods during heavy rains. Intercropping of abaca trees on the hillsides has been proven to improve the conditions for biodiversity and soil conditions, as well as sedimentation problems in coastal areas which are key breeding places for sea fishes. The water holding capacity of the soil has also improved and much dangerous floods and landslides have been prevented. Natural fibers have a high strength in relation to their density. Moreover, the energy requirements for production of natural fibers, including Manila hemp, are lower than for conventional fibers. Their production is in fact CO2 neutral and at the end of their lifespan, the composites can either be recycled or decomposed naturally. Being the fiber grown and harvested only in Asian countries where the processes have been acknowledged for decades, there are also some disadvantages though that have to be taken in consideration. According to a recent study published in July 2021 by Xavier University about the challenges and the opportunities involving the abaca industry, the presence of issues regarding poor sanitation, low quality fiber coming from immature stalks, and farmers exploitation are prevalent, and when it comes to marketing and selling only one quarter of the total amount of domestic production is sold and commercialized. The challenges would involve the mechanization of fiber extraction, processing and institutionalizing the Farmer’s Social Enterprise, so the good quality fiber would be exported and the farmers would benefit and be recognized in the process, as every stage from harvesting to decortication is done manually.
The need to establish a global industry for the abaca fiber
The market supply for fiber production could be raised if other countries in tropical and humid locations were to establish a global industry to meet rising demand. The knowledge and the experience about production and processing gained in the Philippines could be transferred to other countries with the same environmental features, like Ecuador, the second-largest producing country, where abaca is grown in large estates and production is increasingly mechanized. Manila hemp fiber could represent a sustainable alternative to reinforced polymers in many fields, if higher investments were provided alongside the introduction of new machineries, specialized equipment and facilities that would give indigenous countries an easy access to the international market. Productivity would also increase and the local businesses would improve farming practices that could rehabilitate the environment. The strategic directions included in quadrennial plan are still a work in progress and they lastly include: new research and development phases to improve the quality of other types of abaca, utilization of the fiber for the making of by-products for the industries, and a common goal for raising awareness around the climate change issue.
Filipino, Catholic and Jesuit University based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Course in Land, Farming and Community consider the role of food, agriculture and rural communities and lifestyle within local and global optics. The webinar is about the opportunities that abaca fiber could offer to the industries as a sustainable and biodegradable replacement for glass fiber.