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These face masks are made from biodegradable leaf fibers and could replace plastic ones

Producers in the Phillippines have found a new use for their tried and trusted material, abaca. The leaf fiber could be the future of PPE.

These face masks are made from biodegradable leaf fibers and could replace plastic ones
Image Source: tyratoyado / Twitter

As the pandemic rages on across the world, what conservationists have termed "Coronavirus waste" is now appearing in our ecosystems. From single-use masks to waterlogged latex gloves, unbiodegradable waste is floating in our oceans and posing threat to our marine life. Therefore, a Philippines-based company, Salay Handmade Products Industries, Inc. has come up with a solution: Abaca leaf fiber masks. These masks, unlike those made of materials derived from plastic, are biodegradable. In addition to being made with plant materials, they have the potential to work just as efficiently as medical-grade surgical masks. Soon, these face masks could be the future of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).



The face masks are made with raw abaca, a leaf fiber prized for its great mechanical strength, resistance to saltwater damage, and long fiber length. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "The best grades of abaca are fine, lustrous, light beige in color, and very strong." Indeed, it can be as strong as polyester. This makes abaca the perfect "fabric" to replace plastic-derived materials in the production of masks. In the Philippines, abaca is most commonly used to make things like teabags and Philippine peso banknotes, but Salay Handmade Products Industries, Inc.'s recent findings could find a new purpose for the leaf fiber.


To test the efficiency of face masks made with abaca, The Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology (DOST-X) conducted a study comparing them to both standard surgical face masks as well as N95 masks. The department first evaluated the abaca face mask's fiber structures, pore sizes, water repellency, and water absorbency via Water Drop Tests. These tests were then analyzed under a microscope. As per the research team's findings, the abaca mask absorbed three to five percent of the total water applied, the N95 mask absorbed 46 percent, and the surgical mask absorbed 0.17 percent. This means that the biodegradable face masks perform better than N95 masks and nearly as well as surgical masks.



At present, the abaca face masks are more expensive than those that use plastic-derived materials. However, things are changing. Abaca exporter Firat Kabasakalli revealed that there was a spike in demand for the material from PPE manufacturers in several countries including China, India, and Vietnam. This means more manufacturers are taking into account the environmental cost of producing standard masks. "The awareness of consumers now is higher when it comes to taking care of the environment,” Neil Francis Rafisura, the general manager of Salay Handmade Products Industries, Inc. said in an interview. “There are people who will pay a premium for environmentally friendly products." As demand for abaca grows, it is likely to become cheaper as well. Hopefully, more individuals will take the pandemic's ongoing environmental impact into consideration when making decisions about the kind of PPE they produce and purchase.



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