Fibre From Familiar Fruit
Bananas are the most common fruit consumed worldwide. In 2019, the banana export market produced 21 million tonnes of fruit. This is less than 20% of the total global banana production market. A majority of bananas produced globally are not for export but for in-country consumption.
The banana plant has a life span of 9 months. Once the fruit is harvested, the stem of the plant is treated as waste. Similar to rice straw, the fields are burnt to clear the land for next year’s crops. Banana trunks (pseudo-stems) are usually burnt or discarded as waste.
Banana fibre comprises cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. There are various methods for producing banana fibre. It depends on the final product required. Whatever the production method, the final product is fully biodegradable. Furthermore, banana fibre is a highly absorbent material that is also environmentally sustainable. Let’s look at various examples of useful products that are made using banana fibres.
Reusable Sanitary Pads
India is the number one producer of bananas, most of which are consumed in-country. Several companies in India are producing sanitary pads made with banana fibres. These items are absorbent and easy to dispose of because of the biodegradable materials used. However, Saukhyam reusable pads stand out as a unique product. Saukhyam has incorporated banana fibres into a reusable product that can last up to 5 years. Thus, providing an economical and environmentally safe solution for female hygiene. Additionally, Saukhyam provides work opportunities and training for women in rural areas. This environmentally sustainable product can absorb up to 6 hours of heavy flow and is both machine and hand washable.
Uganda is the second-largest producer of bananas for in-country use. Matoke (a variety of cooking banana) is the staple food of Uganda. This cooking banana is a vital food source in this region of East Africa, also consumed by Tanzanian, Kenyan, Rwandan and Burundian nationals. They also use matoke bananas for brewing local banana beer.
Ugandan produces approximately 8 million tonnes of bananas every year. This is equivalent to 16 million tonnes of banana farming waste. Composting this waste to improve soil health is ideal. However, the high quantities of banana farming waste have enabled various innovative businesses to spring up in Uganda that uses banana fibres as a building block. Below we explore a hair extension business and a paper mill.
In Kampala, Uganda, Shalbags Workshop run by Sharon Ninsiima produces paper bags and recyclable paper crafts from banana fibres.
First, they strip the banana trunks into thin layers. Then mechanically extraction produces the coarse fibres. They dry the fibres. Subsequently, they cut the fibres into small pieces roughly 2cm long. Boiling these pieces in sodium hydroxide helps to breakdown the lignin bonds. Washing and crushing the softened fibres produce pulp. At this stage, they add shredded recycled paper. Then casting nets are used to scoop out the pulp. When the pulp is dry, they place the paper produced between rollers to smooth out and strengthen the sheets. This rolling step improves the texture of the final product.
The video below shows the papermaking process.
In Japan, bashō a species of Japanese banana is used to create a lightweight breathable fabric. This fabric is very similar to linen, hemp and ramie (flowering nettles). In Kijōka, Ogimi, Okinawa Prefecture, this traditional method of making fabric survives. This craft is known as Kijōka-bashōfu.
To produce this fabric first, they strip the banana trunk into thin layers. Then they boil the strips to soften the fibres. Next, they scrap and separate the strips to produce threads. The joining of these threads with knots creates the yarn. Then they spin the yarn onto a spindle. Subsequently, preparing some of the yarns for the natural dye. Traditionally, they use natural indigo and brown dyes. Weaving takes place using traditional hand-operated looms. The last steps are washing, drying and stretching the garment, ready for sale.
The finest bashōfu is used to make kimonos.
Musa textilis is a species of banana native to the Philippines and is also known as Manila hemp. Abacá fruit is inedible. The coarse fibres found in the abacá plant trunk comprise cellulose, lignin, and pectin. They have used abacá fibres for centuries, mainly in tea bags, banknotes, carpets, furniture and clothing.
They predominantly use Abacá fibre for cordage and it is very similar to coconut fibre (coir) and agave fibres such as sisal and henequen. Abacá is durable and resistant to saltwater damage and is common in fishing nets and various ropes or lines for seafaring vessels.
Qwstion is a Swiss company that designs versatile carry solutions. Their development of Bananatex marks the start of an innovative and sustainable material that uses abacá to create various high-end quality products.
Their process starts in the Philippine abacá plantations. The local farmers harvest the plant trunks and extract the fibre by hand. Next, they carry out a paper making method to soften the fibres. Then they spin the yarn. At this stage, they weave the fabric and then coat it with beeswax. The penultimate step is cutting the fabric and assembling the parts for joining. After all these stages, it is great to know that the final product is fully biodegradable.
Having looked at five different traditional and novel methods of preparing and using banana fibres. Could banana fibres be a green alternative to cotton, silk, linen and synthetic cellulose?