When you think of banana, pineapple, and coconut, you may imagine a fruit salad or fancy cocktail – something sweet and summery. Yet all three plants are now being used to make durable and sustainable fabrics.
By Ellen Rubin
Natural Sources for Sustainable Fabrics
Musa (banana) fiber is made from the stem of banana plants. It’s incredibly versatile, strong, sustainably grown, and biodegradable. Bananas, technically the berries of the shrub, can be harvested only once per growing cycle. After harvesting the fruit, the leaves and stems must be cut down to allow a new fruit-bearing shrub can grow from the existing roots. Normally, the stems and leaves become unproductive waste with over 1 billion kilograms thrown out year. However, by processing the stems, a wide range of fabrics and paper can be produced whose qualities have been compared to silk, hemp, and bamboo.
Production: India is the largest producer of bananas in the world, although the Philippines also has a healthy banana economy. Both countries have embraced utilizing the entire plant, especially at organic and sustainable farms. Utilizing the stem is a second source of income for small farmers and meshes well with artisan and sustainable eco-systems.
Once the bananas have been harvested the plants are cut down and the stems separated for processing. There are actually two different fibers that can be harvested from banana stems – the inner, finer fibers used mostly for fabric production, and courser outer fibers that can be made into fabrics, baskets and bags, paper, ropes, mats, and even car tires.
The stems are soaked in water or a chemical solution to soften the fibers. This makes it easier to separate them from the waste areas of the plant. This is a labor intensive process, often done by hand. Once dry, the fibers are separated by their qualities: the inner or finer, while the outer fibers are more coarse. The inner fibers joined together to form long thread, then spun wet to prevent breakage. The dying process comes next, then the yarn is woven into fabric with many of the same qualities as silk. Banana fabric is soft, supple, breathable, absorbent, and has a natural shine. It is a fairly delicate fabric that can withstand hot water, but should be treated as delicate. It is often used to make saris and kimonos.
Uses: The outer fibers are coarser, yet are perfect for making bags, packaging material, and paper. It is naturally water-, fire-, and tear-resistant. It is long lasting and durable. These qualities make it perfect for use as money. The Japanese use banana paper for their yen notes. Banana paper is also used to make sturdy boxes and wallets.
Regardless of its use, banana products are recyclable and bio-degradable. Their processing and manufacture is also nearly carbon neutral. Many upscale and sustainable manufacturers have embraced banana products. Green Banana Paper in the Philippines, as well as fashion houses such as Offset Warehouse, THIS Co., and Frabjous Fibers all use banana fabrics.
Pineapple: Piñatex Leather & Piña Fabric.
The leaves of pineapple plants are the foundation of two different materials: Piña fabric and Piñatex leather. Both use leaves of pineapple plants that would otherwise be left to rot after harvest. It provides a secondary income to growers and is environmentally neutral.
Piña is a fine fabric, similar to silk. Traditionally worn by the elite in the Philippines, its origins may go back hundreds of years when it was used as a trade good with Egypt and Greece. The process to create this finely woven and transparent fabric is complex and labor intensive. Leaves are scraped to dislodge the fibers which are washed, dried, waxed, then bound into yarn, and finally woven.
Piñatex was developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, a Spanish businesswoman and founder of Ananas Anam, in response to the number of chemicals used in leather tanning processes and as an alternative to petroleum-based textiles. The watchwords for Ananas Anam are people, ecology and economics and the goal is to create a company that is socially and environmentally responsible.
There are several ecological advantages it Piñatex. First, there is no unused waste, whereas leather companies are excessively wasteful – because of the shape of animal hides, the waste of the top ten leather producing companies equals half of the total global leather output. Piñatex is manufactured as bolts of fabric reducing the amount of waste. It presents a viable vegan alternative to leather goods. Not only does it function like leather, produce far less pollution in manufacturing, it is also 40% less expensive than good quality leather.
Piñatex utilizes a waste product, creates a secondary source of income for farmers, and has an additional environmental benefit. The manufacturing process used creates a biomass that can be converted into fertilizer and bio-gas to be used toward the next harvest. Hijosa is striving to create biodegradable, eco-friendly, sustainable products that are also toxic-free. Designers concerned about the environment are increasingly embracing this vegan alternative to leather.
Using the leaves of 16 pineapple plants, (approximately 480 leaves) 1 square meter of material can be produced. After collecting the leaves, the fiber is extracted, washed and dried, then purified in the Philippines. The fibers are bonded to a mesh base with a corn based polylactic acid to form a non-woven mesh. It is finished in Spain or Italy. The fabric is not biodegradable and wears much like leather in its breathability and flexibility. Since the product launch in 2015, Piñatex has been used by over 1,000 brands worldwide including H&M and Hilton Hotels. Hugo Boss has introduced an entire line of footwear made from Piñatex.
Coconut Husk: Cocona
Cocona is not a fabric, per se, but a process of bonding a coconut shell-based product to existing fabrics such as cotton or polyester. It is permanently combined with a polymer base and turned into fibers, like polyester created from petroleum products. Like banana fibers and Piñatex, cocona is made from waste products – activated carbons derived from coconut shells mixed with volcanic sand (a by-product of water filtration industries). It is eco-friendly, with a low carbon footprint.
Cocona fabrics function differently than others by creating a microclimate between your skin and clothing by regulating both temperature and humidity. One of the primary manufacturers of cocona products named themselves 37.5 after the core human body temperature (in Celsius degrees). People perform better when they are able to maintain an even body temperature.
Unlike other fabrics that are breathable and fast-wicking, cocona removes the sweat while it is still in the vapor stage – even before it can condense into a liquid – to keep you cool. When you are cold, cocona fabrics can trap your energy to help keep you warm. Regardless of climate conditions, these fabrics can actively keep your body temperature close to normal. Processed coconut shells create an activated carbon whose pores actually capture the vapor and odor molecules and brings them to the surface to evaporate.
Cocona has several unique features. It is extremely durable, more so than bamboo or cotton. Because it is wear-resistant, it does not create micro-particles (lint) that add to pollution. The active ingredients in the fabric do not wash away. Activated carbon has a huge absorption area; 1 gram has the surface area of two tennis courts. In fact, several tests show that after 50 washing the carbon actually functions better than new because the pore area increases.
Keeping dry is essential to keeping cool. Cocona dries 92% faster than cotton and wicks the moisture to the surface quickly. When odors are absorbed they are completely removed in the wash. A test of 100 washings showed that the fabric retains its shape. It is wrinkle-resistant and protects the wearer from harmful UV rays by being 50+ UPF (ultraviolet protection factor).
Cocona fabrics have proven to be a very versatile performance fabric. It can be woven or knitted, and is practical in all weather. The fact that it is practical and retains its look, even under harsh conditions, has made it the fabric of choice for manufacturers such as Adidas, the US Army, Carhartt, Tommy Bahama, Salomon, and Kenneth Cole.
Coconut, pineapple, and banana waste can all be used to create new and high-functioning fabrics with qualities that can’t be found in traditional materials. These aren’t a poor substitute, but an evolution in fabric production. Best of all, they leave little or no carbon footprint, reduce the amount of waste, and add another source of income for farmers.
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