Abaca, a relative of the banana tree, could replace plastic in millions of single-use gowns and masks around the world, drastically reducing the quantity of post-COVID-19 plastic waste.
The Philippines is the world’s leading producer of abaca and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, grew 85 percent of the world’s supply in 2017.
It is primarily processed into specialty paper for use in tea bags, banknotes, cigarette filters, and single-use medical items. While harvesting and processing abaca is labor-intensive, abaca is as durable as polyester and decomposes in just two months.
A global shift away from single-use plastics has been paused in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Demand for essential single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, face masks and shields, and gowns, has skyrocketed.
While many companies seek to replace plastic in PPE such as masks, some remain concerned that biodegradable alternatives will reduce effectiveness. The Philippine Department of Science and Technology recently carried out a preliminary study assessing abaca for use in masks.
It found that abaca paper has pore sizes within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended range to filter hazardous particles. It is also more water-resistant than some existing commercial masks.
“People see this pandemic lasting for some time,” abaca exporter Firat Kabasakalli from Dragon Vision Trading told Bloomberg. “So even small companies are trying to make protective equipment, which require our fibre.”
“We are getting a lot of inquiries from new clients abroad,” added Kabasakalli. Experts predict that global production of abaca could reach $100 million in 2020.
COVID-19 and Plastic Waste
According to Worldometer, there have been 20,553,328 cases of COVID-19 so far. Billions of PPE items have been distributed, and much of it has already found its way into the ocean.
In addition to PPE, some coffee chains. including Starbucks and Costa, returned to providing single-use cups in place of reusable ones. While some local pubs and bars switched to plastic takeaway containers in place of glasses.
In the UK, the government suspended the 5p plastic bag fee—first introduced in 2015—for online supermarket deliveries. It also temporarily delayed the planned national ban on single-use plastic straws.
The UN’s trade agency, UNCTAD, warned that a “tidal wave of COVID-19 waste” could hit streets, beaches, and oceans. While the UN predicts 75 percent of coronavirus-related plastic will become waste—most likely marine pollution.