The Abaca is a vital crop to the Philippine economy in a big way. In fact, it is vital to the world’s economy and environmental care as well.
The Philippines is the largest producer of Abaca fibers supplying about 87% of the world’s requirement for the production of cordage, specialty papers (for currency note, stencil paper, teabag, coffee filter/cup, capacitor and insulation paper, etc.), textiles, furniture and fixtures, handicrafts, novelty items, meat casing, cosmetics and skin care products, grocery bags, composites for automotive and construction and other industrial applications.
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.
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.