Mainly used for the production of speciality papers.
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.
Most of abaca fibre is pulped and processed into specialty 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 and recycling of the parts.
Owing to the extremely high mechanical strength of the fibre as well as its length , application of abaca even in highly stressed components offers great potential for different industrial applications.
The world's leading abaca producer is the Philippines, where the plant is cultivated on 130 000 ha by some 90 000 small farmers .While the crop is also cultivated in other Southeast Asian countries, the second largest producing country is Ecuador, where abaca is grown on large estates and production is increasingly mechanized.
Production and trade
In 2010, the Philippines produced about 57 000 tonnes of abaca fibre, while Ecuador produced 10 000 tonnes. World production is valued at around USD60 million a year. Almost all abaca produced is exported, mainly to Europe, Japan and the USA. Exports from the Philippines are increasingly in the form of pulp rather than raw fibre.
Abaca has a high potential to substitute glass fibres in multiple automotive parts 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 industry. The knowledge and the experience about production and processing gained can easily be transferred to other countries.