Once a favoured source of rope for ship's rigging, abaca shows promise as an energy-saving replacement for glass fibres in automobiles
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 labourious. 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, buoyancy, 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.
CNR-ISMAC, Biella, Italy
The world's leading abaca producer is the Philippines, where the plant is cultivated on 130 000 ha by some 90 000 small farmers (above). While the crop is also cultivated in other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines' closest rival is Ecuador, where abaca is grown on large estates and production is increasingly mechanized.
Production and trade
In 2007, the Philippines produced about 60 000 tonnes of abaca fibre, while Ecuador produced 10 000 tonnes. World production is valued at around $30 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.
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.
Bank of Japan
Paper made from abaca pulp is used in stencil papers, cigarette filter papers, tea-bags and sausage skins, and also in currency paper (Japan's yen banknotes contain up to 30% abaca).
Mercedes Benz has used a mixture of polypropylene thermoplastic and abaca yarn in automobile body parts. Production of abaca fibre uses an estimated 60% less energy than production of glassfibre.