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Coconut coir fibre products’ vast potential untapped

The coir (coconut fibre) business in Sri Lanka that had been essentially a cottage industry that mostly employs women, is slowly recovering from the December 2004 tsunami which destroyed coir producing units along the coast. But they have had to compete against dozens of Sri Lankan companies which export high-quality coir products.


Coir husking in progress

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the British OXFAM have stepped in to help revive these small businesses and help women get back on their feet.

Machine-made coir is not as attractive as the beach-pit coir where the waves are allowed to repeatedly wash away the brownish colour from the husks to yield clean, white coir.

While the women in cottage industries struggle to produce ropes, mats, brushes and brooms for local consumption, there are dozens of Sri Lankan companies that export high-quality fibre and coir products such as geotextiles, rubberised coir mattresses, and upholstery.

Sri Lanka

According to official statistics, Sri Lanka is the single largest supplier of brown coir fibre to the world market, and together with India accounts for almost 90 percent of global coir exports.

According to a 2006 study done by the National Institute of Business Management (NIBM) commissioned by Oxfam International, the coir industry here is characterised by a traditional, labour-intensive, largely female, white-fibre industry in the Western and Southern provinces and the more modernised, mechanised, export-oriented brown-fibre industry in the North-Western province.


Coir products

White fibre is harvested from the husks of green coconuts while the stiffer brown fibres are extracted from husks of mature nuts. An estimated 10 percent of fibre comes from traditional coir areas in the south, whereas 85 percent of the brown fibre mills are based in the North-Western and Western provinces.

Coir-related exports accounted for six percent of agricultural exports, over one percent of all exports, and 0.35 percent of GDP in Sri Lanka in 2009.

Background

Coir fibre is obtained from husk of coconut and composed of highly lignified form of cellulose. All coir fibre falls into two distinctly different categories viz. white coir and brown coir. The differences between two categories are due to the conditions of husk used, the method of extraction, the physical properties as well as in the uses.

Coir fibre is obtained from the outer layer of the fruit of coconut tree (Cocos Nucifera L). This outer layer is called the coconut husk and this husk (exocarp) of the coconut consists of a smooth waterproof outer skin (epicarp) and fibrous zone (mesocarp).

The mesocarp comprises strands of fibro-vascular bundles of coir embedded in a non fibrous paranchymatous “corky” connective tissue usually referred to as pith; which ultimately becomes coir dust.

Chemical

Chemically coir fibre is composed of a highly lignified form of cellulose (cellulose lignin complex), which accounts for its colour, harshness and relative brittleness in comparison with the pure cellulose fibre. The bulk of the ground tissue of the husk, on the other hand, is made up of pectin and hemicelluloses i.e. pectin and hemi cellulose act as a spongy binding material that bind the large fibre cells together to make up the husk.


Rope making

Coconut coir is in great demand unaccounted of natural resilience, durability, resistance to dampness and other functional properties. The chemical composition and physical properties of coir fibre is presented below.

Success story of India

Indian coir industry is an important cottage industry contributing significantly to the economy of the major coconut growing states and union territories, i.e., Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Orissa, Assam, Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep and Pondicherry. About 5.5 lakh persons get employment, mostly part time, in this industry. The exports from this industry are around Rs. 70 crores. Coconut husk is the basic raw material for coir products and around 50 per cent of the available coir husk is used to produce coir products. Hence, there is huge scope for growth of coir industry.

During the Seventh Plan period, encouragement has been given for expansion of home market through publicity and advertisement, product diversification, adoption of new technology, research and development, training for artisans, including women and social welfare measures for coir workers, most of whom are SC/ST and women.

The Eighth Plan programmes for coir industry aimed at increased utilization of coconut husk for production of coir fibre, growth of the domestic market, strengthening of research and development to find out new uses of coir fibre especially in the areas of geo-fibre, fire retardant, cement and gypsum polymer development, acquiring of new technology like PVC-tufted coir products, encouragement to cooperativisation and providing social welfare, civic amenities and medical facilities to coir workers.


Coir pith

Emphasis was laid on mechanisation in a phased manner without affecting employment to make Indian coir products competitive in the export market. Modernization of coir units has been envisaged by providing incentives for installation of modern equipments to make coir industry more competitive in the export market.

Special training programmes have been formulated for women artisans. Improved modern treadle ratts were provided to trained women artisans to increase employment and earnings. Medical facilities, creche for children of coir workers, model coir villages for SC/ST coir workers and social welfare schemes implemented during the Eighth Plan period. Emphasis has been given on developing devices/equipment/machinery through R&D to reduce drudgery and to improve productivity of coir workers.

Development of improved variety of ratts and looms would help in improving the production of coir yarn spinning and coir mets.

In order to boost exports, the scheme of cooperative publicity/programme in the export markets, which was started inú the Seventh Plan was continued.

India accounts for more than two-thirds of the world production of coir and coir products. Kerala is the home of Indian coir industry, particularly white fibre, accounting for 61 per cent of coconut production and over 85 per cent of coir products.

Although India has a long coastline dotted with coconut palms, growth of coir industry in other coastal states has been insignificant.

Types of Coir Fibre

All coir fibre falls into two distinctly different categories, white coir and brown coir.

The differences are due to the conditions of husk used, the method of extraction and the physical properties as well as in the uses. Coir obtained from immature green coconut is generally known as white fibre and is finer than the brown fibre obtained from seasoned coconuts, which has lost their green color (12 months). Both types of fibre are widely used and each has its own unique distinct type of application.

Brown fibre

The fibrous husks are soaked in pits or in nets in a slow moving body of water to swell and soften the fibres. The long bristle fibres are separated from the shorter mattress fibres underneath the skin of the nut, a process known as wet-milling.

The mattress fibres are sifted to remove dirt and other rubbish, dried in the sun and packed into bales. Some mattress fibre is allowed to retain more moisture so that it retains its elasticity for ‘twisted’ fibre production. The coir fibre is elastic enough to twist without breaking and it holds a curl as though permanently waved.

Twisting is done by simply making a rope of the hank of fibre and twisting it using a machine or by hand. The longer bristle fibre is washed in clean water and then dried before being tied into bundles or hunks. It may then be cleaned and ‘hackled’ by steel combs to straighten the fibres and remove any shorter fibre pieces. Coir bristle fibre can also be bleached and dyed to obtain hanks of different colors.

White fibre

The immature husks are suspended in a river or water-filled pit for up to ten months. During this time micro-organisms break down the plant tissues surrounding the fibres to loosen them - a process known as retting.

Segments of the husk are then beaten by hand to separate out the long fibres which are subsequently dried and cleaned. Cleaned fibre is ready for spinning into yarn using a simple one-handed system or a spinning wheel.

Coir Processing Fibre extraction

The effectiveness of the wet processes such as bleaching and dyeing of coir, are strongly dependent on the procedures used to extract fibres from the husks and the pretreatment given the fibres. Both state-of-the art and commonly used technologies for fibre extraction are described below.

Traditional fibre extraction

The traditional production of fibres from the husks is a laborious and time-consuming process. This is highly polluting of surface waters and results in the accumulation of large dumps of pith. After manual separation of the nut from the husk, the husks are processed by various retting techniques, and generally in ponds of brackish waters (for three to six months) or in salt backwaters or lagoons.

This requires 10-12 months of anaerobic (bacterial) fermentation. By retting the fibres they are softened and can be decorticated and extracted by beating, which is usually done by hand. After hackling, washing and drying (in the shade) the fibres are loosened manually and cleaned. The fibre thus obtained is of highest quality and can be used for spinning and weaving purposes. Retted fibres from green husks are most suitable fibres for dyeing and bleaching. For the production of more coarse brown yarns, shorter periods of retting may be applied. Yarn thus obtained can be used extensively in geotextile. Alternatively, mechanical process can be applied by using either defibering or decorticating equipment to process the husks which require only five days of immersion in water tanks.

Crushing the husk in a breaker opens the fibres. By using revolving “drums” the coarse long fibres are separated from the short woody parts and the pith. The stronger fibres are washed, cleaned, dried, hackled and combed. The quality of the fibre is greatly affected by these procedures.

Green decortications and enzyme treatments

New environmentally friendly methods of fibre production are of interest. These can be locally exploited on relative small-scale, and have the potential to produce a more constant quality of fibres. Novel developments by the Central Coir Research Institute (CCRI), Kalavoor using a biotechnological approach with specific microbial enzymes, for example, have substantially reduced the retting time from three to five days.

High quality fibre production has been maintained. Similar protocols can be developed to enhance the properties of the fibres with regard to surface properties such as smoothness and porosity. By using specific (microbial) lignolytic enzymes (Laccase/phenoloxidasel, the fibre surface can be bleached (or activated to react more easily with the dyes). Similar technology has been developed by NOVO-Nordisk to reduce the amounts of chemicals required to produce wood chips or fibreboard.

Application of Coir Fibre

Coir Fibre is biodegradable, eco-friendly and has got excellent chemical and physical properties, which makes it suitable for multifarious applications. Due to these peculiar characteristics, it has got broad applications in various fields including agriculture and soil conservation.

Coir yarn

Coir Yarn is generally of 2 ply, spun from coir fibre by hand as well as with the help of spinning machines or traditional ratts. The Coir yarn is of different grades based on the quality of fibre used, the nature of twist, presence of Impurities etc. and is available in different forms like pressed bales, spools, etc. for various industrial and agricultural applications.

Coir mats

Coir mats are made on handlooms, power looms and with or without brush. Fibre mats, Creel mats, Rod mats, Carnatic mats are the different types of mats commonly manufactured. Fibre Mats are known for its compact brush, Creel mats for thin brush and Rod mats for thick brush. Coir mats are available with woven or stenciled designs for use as doormats. Latex backing is done to make non-slip mats.

Coir mattings

Coir Mattings are made on traditional hand looms or powerlooms and is available in a number of designs and patterns made by weave and color combinations. It is mainly used as floor coverings and floor runners for furnishing corridors and also used for ceiling and wall paneling.

Coir geo-textiles

Coir geotextile is bio-degradable and eco-friendly and is the natural solution to large scale soil erosion and soil degradation. Coir geotextiles have very high tensiIe strength, water absorption capabilities and ability to break up run off top soil. Coir retains moisture for long time and it also promotes new vegetation by absorbing water and by preventing the topsoil from drying out.

Coir geotextile provides soil support for four to five years for natural vegetation to establish. It is also used for river bank protection, road construction and land reclamation. Coir mesh mattings, Coir needle felts and Coco logs are the major kinds of Geotextiles.

Coir Pith

Pith is the material that binds the coconut fibre in the husk. So far considered as a problematic waste, Coir Pith also called Coco-peat, has now acquired high demand for its use as a soil conditioner and plant nutrient and an effective medium for plant growth.

It is an effective soil conditioner and is commonly used as sans-soil medium for growing plants and used as a substitute for Peat Moss.

Pith can hold 8 to 10 times water by weight and is used as potting mixture in plant nursery to save on water, which is one of the major costs in the nursery. Coir pith enhances the nutrient carrying capacity of plants and it is ideal for growing anthuriums and orchids due to its moisture retention properties.

Coir pith can be converted into organic manure (C-pom) by a simple technology developed by the Coir Board Coir pith serves as an environmental and high organic carbon source for the maintenance of organic matter contents of the soil and finds ample applications in organic farming.

All most all the products required for gardening can be made out of Coir fibre. Coco pot, poles, hanging baskets etc are commonly used in gardening, replacing plastics which is causing lot of environmental problems. Coconut husk chips are also widely used in horticultural applications.

Coir composites

Coir composites are now being extensively used as a wood substitute due to its high specific strength, stiffness and durability. Coir composites are ecofriendly, termite resistance and also cost-effective. Coir composites are used for making roofing sheets, furniture, trays, doors. Windows, packing base etc.

Coir fibre, only a by-product of coconut, is now in great demand, particularly, from China. Here in Sri Lanka, though the average annual coconut crop is around three billion nuts, the coir production is only around 80,000 tonnes and out of it around 70,000 tonnes are exported. Vietnam, a newcomer to the market, with only 0.7 billion nuts, exports today around 114,000 tonnes of coir fibre.

Sri Lanka is unable to seize the opportunity, as only 25 percent of the coconut husks available in the country are utilized to produce coir and the balance of nearly 75 percent goes waste. The income earned by fibre exports is at Rs 6.4 billion and if the total potential is exploited the country would be rich by around another Rs 20 billion.

Out of the total coconut products exported fibre constitute the highest being 44 percent while DC is the second highest 24 percent. To turn around this situation, the stakeholders involved in the coir industry need to relentlessly work to extract the full potential of the coir fibre. It is commendable that the Ceylon Coir Fibre Exporters’ Association (CCFEA) affiliated to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is now in the forefront in these activities.

(The writer is a Director of MAT POL (PVT) Ltd, a BOI company, who are manufacturers and exporters of coir products to Fibre Dust PLC of USA)

 

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