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Sri Lanka Must Vigorously Promote Coir and Coir based Products Globally

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by Dr.N.Yogaratnam

It is heartening to note that the Coconut Development Ministry and the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) have signed an MOU very recently, on measures to be taken to issue Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) or Standard Certifications for coconut- related products.

Global

The global trade volume for coir fibre, value-added products is now valued at about $140 million annually, with India’s share at about $ 70 million and Sri Lanka’s in the region of $ 60 million.

Yet, even in the world’s top two producers, India and Sri Lanka, which account for about 90% of global coir fibre production combined, this renewable resource is underutilized; local coir mills process only a fraction of the available husks, which accrue more or less year round as a waste during coconut processing.

Sri Lankan coir industry

Sri Lanka is the largest supplier of brown fibre to the world with annual exports of fibre of more than 100,000 mt. Also famous for its value added coir products such as coir twine, brushes, brooms, coir mats, rugs and geotextiles. Sri Lanka also produces a range of rubberized coir-based horticulture products such as coir pots, baskets, basket liners, seed trays, hanging baskets, weed control mats and coir poles.

Another product, coco peat is a 100% natural and renewable growing medium used in greenhouses and farms and also for landscaping, seed germination purposes as a substitute for peat moss and bark compost. Coco peat is available in the forms of bails (5-25 kgs) briquettes (650 gms ), discs and grow bags.

Coco peat maintains excellent air porosity even when saturated and brings better crops with faster developing roots. Coco peat has better water retention qualities than peat and other growing media. Coco peat absorbs moisture immediately.

Sri Lanka is the world’s largest exporter of coir fibre. Yet, Sri Lanka’s coir industry is in urgent need for infrastructure upgrading for it to sustain its coir supremacy. New technology infusion to our coir sector can greatly enhance our coir appeal in the competitive global marketplace.

Technologies

Research and development efforts in the diversified utilization of coconut during the past decades achieved numerous viable processing technologies. In spite of these achievements, the coconut industry in the producing countries is still highly dependent on the production and marketing of traditional products such as copra and coconut oil . This situation contributed to the main problem of the coconut industry that is the low returns from coconut farming.

Continuous effort must therefore be directed to new sources of income through product diversification and improved product quality with emphasis on market-oriented technologies. Complementary to this is the need to focus attention on sustained efforts for enhancing coconut production coupled with aggressive marketing strategies. If these activities are realized, then positive growth of the coconut-producing areas can be achieved, thus improving the livelihood of the many small farm holders, the main component of the coconut sector.

It is timely that coconut producing areas in Sri Lanka concentrate in product improvement, development and diversification through the introduction of value-added products and market promotion of these products.

Ecological

A significant prospect for coir is the growing global concern to address ecological problems through the use of natural materials for environmental protection. Coir nets or geotextiles and bio-logs or fascines, two of the most important products of coir today both here and abroad, have been proven to be effective materials in controlling steep and road slopes erosion and for riverbank protection in technologically advanced countries.

Geotextiles are coir-based matting materials placed in sloping lands and embankments to hold soil and permit vegetative growth. It helps in erosion control and soil productivity conservation. Bio-logs or fascines are tubular structures of coir mats or nets filled with dust, peat or coir resembling large rolls or gabions.

Chinese market

Another big opportunity for the coir industry is the opening up of the Chinese market for coir and related manufactures. Sri Lanka was able to serve a small fraction of the requirements of the Chinese market. According to a recent report, the Chinese market has an estimated annual demand of 96,000 mt of coir and 4,800 mt of coco peat. The Chinese government completed landscaping parks and riverbanks in major cities for the World Expo in 2010 in Shanghai. Furthermore, China has a number of dams, dumpsites, golf courses and riverbanks that may need coco geotextiles for desertification abatement, soil rehabilitation and stabilization.

To be able to serve these expected needs and therefore expand the market share, local suppliers have to keep the price of Sri Lankan coir competitive in the light of the strong competition posed by other coir-producing nations, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam is reportedly selling to China at a relatively low export price.

Coir is eco-friendly and is biodegradable and it promotes vegetation growth as it traps topsoil and keeps its nutrients intact. This could help boost demand for coir. In Philippines, all national and local government agencies, bureaus and other instrumentalities, including agricultural institutions and councils, use coco peat or coir dust and coconut fibre material for soil conditioning and erosion control in government projects nationwide. Sri Lanka should also enforce such practices.

Machinery

To further enhance production of coir and improve the quality of coco coir products, the following machines have been developed and are available;

The ‘Coco Husk Micro-Decorticator’ can process 3,000 husks per day. It separates coco fibre or coir from coconut husks by the crushing action of multiple blades welded on a rotating drum. The blades cause the rapid separation of fibre and dust as the husks are crushed against a set of fixed counter-blades arranged horizontally and parallel to the axes of decorticating blades. Fibres and dust are discharged in separate outlets.

The ‘Coco Husk Mini-Decorticator’, which has a higher 5,000-husk daily capacity, produces mixed fibres 4-6 inches long (CH-3 FIDA grade) by separating them from the peat of coconut husks through a scraping drum with multiple blades welded 94 mm apart.

The ‘Coco Fibre Twining Machine’ is designed to make coconut fibre twines used in producing erosion control geotextile net. The machine is basically reverse engineered but with improvement in capacity, safety and ergonomics. It can process 20 kilos of coconut fibre twines daily or five kilos more than its conventional counterpart.

The ‘Coco Husk Beating Machine’ is made of a flat iron sheet consisting of an impeller welded in shafting and supported by pillow block bearings at end points. A 20 horse-power electrical motor or diesel engine drives the impeller which rotates clockwise by means of 3-groove belted pulleys connected to the rotating shaft.

Opportunities and prospects

Coir dust, meanwhile, has gained more attention from overseas gardeners and plant enthusiasts as they now use this material for organic compost and soil conditioner. The agriculture sector, therefore, is a big potential market for coir dust as organic fertilizer and as growing medium. Pots made of coir dust with other natural materials as binders can be used in growing cuttings of orchids and seedlings of other plants.

The Philippines, according to a report of the Philippine Coconut Authority, has a potential annual production capacity of 732,750 mt of coir and 1.710 million metric tons of coco peat from the country’s large tract of coconut plantations. With these resource potentials, the country is expected to readily meet the demand, local and foreign, for coir and coir products.

The uses of coir for various industrial applications need to be explored. A Consultation on Natural Fibres by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicated that coir has a potential as a natural fibre composite for trucks and in automotive parts as roof liners, floor carpets, seat back trims, engine compartment insulation, package trays, luggage compartments, textile exterior, wheel arc liner, rear and side wall covers and driver cabin liner. Experiments showed that the advantages of coir over other natural materials are its being low cost and lightweight. Moreover, coir has properties suitable for acoustic insulation, has no abrasive wear, is non-skin-irritant and ecologically friendly.

Another report of the FAO of the United Nations entitled ‘Projections to 2012: Hard Fibres, Jute, Kenaf and Allied Fibres’, indicated the following forecasts.

Growth

Consumption of coir is expected to continue growing, albeit at a slower rate than that of the past decade, as growth in the demand for coir products in India and China may decelerate.

Abundant quantities of coconut husk imply that, given the availability of labour and other inputs, coir producers can adjust rapidly to market conditions and prices. It is estimated that approximately 10% of husks are utilized for fibre extraction, satisfying a growing demand for fibre and coir products.

In the medium term, the rapid growth in global consumption is expected to slow down to an annual rate of around 1.1% per annum, as the pace at which the coir industry is able to supply innovative and diversified products may decelerate due to a number of constraints such as the small scale operation of the processing industry.

It was projected that global production will increase from an average of about 580,000 tons in 2002 to about 635,000 tons in 2012, an increase of about 10% over the 10-year period. Production in India is projected to increase by 1.6% per annum, whilst in Sri Lanka, it is expected to expand at a faster rate of 3.0%.

Demand grows in USA

The demand for coir products in importing countries are expected to be met by India, as products from Sri Lanka, a traditional exporter of fibre and pith, are subject to ongoing competition by synthetic foams and fibres.

Total exports are expected to continue increasing at an annual rate of 1.1% in line with global demand and consumption trends in the established market destinations such as the United States and the European Union.

Exports of manufactures are projected to grow by 1.2% per annum to 80,000 tons in 2012, while exports of fibre are expected to expand to about 123,000 tons.

Ford and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company of USA are researching the use of coconut fibre reinforcement for moulded plastic parts to reduce the use of petroleum and make the parts lighter and more natural-looking

The coconut coir, or husks, are a waste stream from Scotts’ soil and grass seed products. The team is investigating their use as a renewable feedstock for Ford’s vehicles

Coconuts are ingredients in plenty of items – pies, cakes and tropical drinks. Now, Ford is hoping to add cars to that list by working with The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company to research how coconut coir, or husks, might be used as a plastic reinforcement.

“This is a win-win situation. We’re taking a material that is a waste stream from another industry and using it to increase the sustainability in our vehicles,” said technical expert for Plastics Research at Ford, Dr. Ellen Lee. “We continue to search for innovative renewable technologies that can both reduce our dependence on petroleum as well as improve fuel economy.”

Coconut coir is a natural fibre from the husk of a coconut. Scotts Miracle-Gro uses the material as a carrier for its soils and grass seed products, including Scotts® Turf Builder® EZ Seed® and Miracle- Gro® Expand ‘n Gro Concentrated Planting Mix. Both products use the coir’s natural fibres to hold 50% more water than basic potting soil and release it as plants need it – helping homeowners save water.

“Scotts Miracle-Gro uses more than 70 million pounds of coir a year in our consumer products,” said Scotts Miracle-Gro Senior Vice President of Global Supply Chain, Dave Swihart. “Teaming up with Ford to find a high-value use for our leftover coir material is very exciting for us as we continually work to make our products and operations more sustainable.”

Once the coconut coir comes to Ford, researchers combine it with plastic to deliver additional reinforcement to the part while eliminating the need for some petroleum. Along with making use of a renewable resource, the new part would be lighter in weight. The natural long fibres also are visible in the plastic and offer a more natural look than typical materials.

In the interior, the material could be used in storage bins, door trim, seat trim or center console substrates. It could also potentially be used on underbody and exterior trim.

Ford is currently testing the material’s properties to ensure it passes all of the company’s durability tests. Coconut coir is very difficult to burn, and Ford is researching whether it has natural flame-retardant properties.

Eco-friendly solutions

Ford’s ‘Reduce, reuse and recycle’ commitment is part of the company’s broader global sustainability strategy to reduce its environmental footprint while at the same time accelerating the development of advanced, fuel-efficient vehicle technologies around the world.

Over the past several years, Ford has concentrated on increasing the use of nonmetal recycled and bio-based materials whenever possible, provided these materials are environmentally-favourable in the specific application. Examples include soy foam seat cushions and head restraints, wheat straw-filled plastic, castor oil foam in instrument panels, recycled resins for underbody systems, recycled yarns on seat covers and natural-fibre plastic for interior components. Coconut coir fibre will also find a place soon.

The dos and don’ts

The dos and don’ts of using coir are:

Do

-Soak a compressed brick, block, or bale in water for at least 15 minutes before using.

-Make sure the soaking container is big enough; coir will expand five to seven times in volume. For a brick, which yields about 1/3 cubic foot of coir dust, a drywall bucket will do. For a bale (about 2 1/2 cubic feet), use an outdoor garbage can.

-Add coir to garden soil as an amendment, or use it as an ingredient in potting mixes. Like peat, it can account for up to 40 percent of the potting mix.

Don’t

-Use bricks that fail to absorb water readily and expand.

-Try to slice a brick in half. Even a chain saw won’t cut it.

-Toss out if any, unused coir. It retains its properties and can be stored—covered— for several years.

To sum-up

Indeed, we need to vigorously promote coir and coir-based products in the world market. We need to showcase the unique properties of coir fibre when compared to other fibres. Researchers have shown that coir is the thickest and the most resistant of all commercial natural fibres. The cellular structure of coir makes it more elastic than other natural fibres. The cell walls of coir fibre and pith contain more lignin than any other commercially relevant natural fibre. As a natural polymer, the lignin in coir fibre adds strength and elasticity to the cellulose-based fibre walls. And, since lignin resists bio-degradation, high-lignin material such as coir fibre imparts strength and longevity to outdoor applications.

These include geotextiles which have become a very important eco-friendly product gaining a strong market in the USA, Europe and Asian countries as erosion control blankets, nets for slope protection, mulch blankets, roof greening mats, grow sticks, coco logs as well as skeffed coir for river bank/canal bank support. Coconut pith has also gained wide acceptance in many horticultural applications. The demand for mattress fibre, as in China, remains a big market with tremendous opportunities.

Indeed, the remarkable properties of coir fibre have made it as the fibre of choice for several applications. These properties should give coir fibre and coir-based products distinct competitive advantage in the world market. courtesy: Ceylon Today

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