Fiber from a banana tree relative could substitute plastic in millions of face masks, and the world’s hospital gowns to combat the coronavirus.
Abaca-a fiber from the Philippines used in teabags and banknotes-is as durable as polyester but will decompose within two months, said Kennedy Costales, head of the Philippine fiber department. While nations prioritized hygiene over the atmosphere for packaging and medical supplies, global attempts to ban single-use plastics have withdrawn and created a bright spot for chemical firms such as LyondellBasell Industries and Trinseo.
Sales of disposable face masks are expected to grow to US$ 166 billion (S$229 billion) more than 200 times worldwide this year, according to a United Nations trade report, citing the Grand View Research consultancy. Industries have been hesitant to replace plastic with biodegradable substitutes due to cost issues and whether the new materials are durable enough and safe for medical use.
A preliminary research by the Philippine Department of Science and Technology found that abaca paper is more water-resistant than a standard N-95 mask, and has pore sizes within the acceptable range for filtering hazardous particles within the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr Costales said the demand for abaca could rise exponentially this year, with 10% of the supply going to medical uses, compared to less than 1% last year. Abaca fiber is gaining rapid popularity as governments and manufacturers around the world are scampering to create more durable and healthy medical clothing for healthcare professionals.
According to the latest data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the Philippines is the world’s largest producer, producing 85 percent of the fiber in 2017. Global production this year is expected to be worth US$ 100 million The fabric, removed from abaca tree trunks, was used in 19th-century ropes for saltwater-resistant ships and Manila envelopes. Up to 30 percent of Japan’s banknotes are made from it, and Mercedes-Benz cars have used abaca yarn.
While plant fiber is more costly to produce than plastic alternatives, Chinese , Indian and Vietnamese protective health gear manufacturers have placed new fiber orders over the past few months, prompting Philippine fiber factories to double their production. Mr. Kabasakalli, Dragon Vision Trading’s general manager shared that people see this pandemic lasting for a while, and even small businesses are trying to make protective equipment that needs their fiber.
One business in southern Philippines that manufactures greeting cards and paper from the fiber for export to the U.S. and Europe has moved to make masks. Public consciousness is now higher when it comes to environmental protection stated by Mr Neil Francis Rafisura, general manager of Salay Handmade Products Industries. In fact, there are consumers who are going to pay a premium for environmentally friendly goods.
Although he estimates that this year, growers will increase production to 74,000 metric tons, this isn’t enough to meet the supply deficit of about 125,000 tons even last year, he said. Part of the explanation for this is that the Philippine farmers need government incentives to increase production.
Abaca is like the Philippines’ precious gold, but it has always been ignored because the government prioritizes crops that feed people.