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Will Usage of Abaca Fiber Face Masks During COVID-19 Help to Reduce Wastes During the Pandemic?


Will Usage of Abaca Fiber Face Masks During COVID-19 Help to Reduce Wastes During the Pandemic?

With the demand for face masks and other PPE equipment soaring high worldwide due to the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic spread, it is quite impossible to not ignore the burgeoning plastic wastes created by their disposal. According to estimates by Greenpeace Taiwan, the country produced and used about 1.3 billion surgical masks during the apex of the pandemic- from early February to mid-May. This number generates over 5,500 metric tons of general waste within a span of 3 months.

Such numbers signify that although face masks add to the general protection during the pandemic situation, they also contribute massively towards environmental degradation and landfill pollution, demanding a bio-degradable solution and substitute. This has gradually led to the emergence and usage of abaca fiber-based surgical and sustainable masks.

Recently, a Philippines-based firm- Salay Handmade Products Industries, Inc. had come forward to commercialize and supply masks made from raw abaca fibers, which boast of the property to decompose in just two months. Abaca fibers are generally rooted from banana leaf and are considered to be strong as polyester but high on the sustainability front. A proper validation on the use of abaca fibers for the production of face masks is offered by the country’s Department of Science and Technology. The researchers found that abaca mask is potent of absorbing nearly 3% to 5% of total water applied, while N95 and surgical masks absorbed 46% and 0.17% respectively.

Essentially, the abaca masks repel water far better than an N95 mask and is considered to be extremely safe for use. Although these abaca masks are eco-friendly, they are also quite highly-priced. That said, environmentalists concerned with the plastic crisis plaguing the entire planet will hopefully witness the benefit of investing in biodegradable masks providing an impetus to the global abaca fiber market.

Abaca fibers, also known as ‘Queen of natural fibers’ offer a huge potential to be used as a renewable bio-resource and are claimed to have a high content of lignin (about 9%) and cellulose (roughly 77%) that provide significant resistance to abrasion, traction, UV rays, and saltwater. These properties allow the fibers to be abundantly used for various industrial or extra-industrial applications across automotive, shipping, construction, pulp and paper, furniture, and textile industries.

Why are abaca fibers gaining massive momentum across the automotive industry?

It was in late 2004 that a major automotive giant, Chrysler-Damlier had explored the possibility of incorporating abaca or banana fiber in polypropylene thermoplastic as a substitute to glass fiber used in the exterior of most of the cars. In fact, it was reported that the company was able to demonstrate that PP composites reinforced with abaca fibers showed high structural as well as tensile strength similar to that of glass fiber. Additionally, abaca reinforced PP composites are relatively lighter compared to glass fiber, which could lead to enhanced fuel and energy saving for vehicles while also reducing their weight by up to 60%.

Elaborating further, the DOST Industrial Technology Development Institute sees abaca’s potential as a roofing material for various public utility vehicles. The polymer’s low heat conductivity could help prevent most of the sun’s heat from entering the automobile’s cab, which is especially helpful during the long summer months.

Speaking of the importance of abaca fibers in the automotive industry, the Philippines, which currently produces about 85% of the world’s abaca firmly states that the use of these fibers could potentially augment the country’s local automotive industry in the years to come.

Abaca fiber market trends across the Philippines

The Philippines has over the years remained a dominant region for the abaca fiber market as it stands to be the largest global producer of abaca fiber, ever since its introduction. Reports state that the region produces about 80% of these fibers in about 130 thousand hectares of land. The market is witnessing a massive boost owing to the mounting demand for toys, gifts, and houseware products. Not only this, rising customer inclination for lifestyle products is also stimulating the industry progression.

What has been fueling the industry growth in the Philippines is the introduction of several initiatives that look toward the promotion and production of high-quality abaca fiber in the region. The federal government is responsible for mandating and creating initiatives and measures which strengthen the hold of the country in the overall abaca fiber market while also creating additional growth opportunities for new market players to foray into the regional market.

Although the market has been expanding prolifically over the past few years, it is currently facing some challenges which might hinder its growth in the near future. A major disadvantage being the application of these fibers as reinforcement. Since abaca fibers cannot blend uniformly with polymer composites owing to their natural properties, this complicates the composite fabrication process in the textile industry, limiting its use in the overall textile business space.

Nevertheless, abaca fibers’ eco-friendly and bio-degradable properties have enabled the global abaca market to grow profusely over the span of 2020 to 2026.