“Banana is a wasteful plant" explains Jack, a banana plantation owner in southwest Nigeria.
"One fruit-producing banana plant will only ever produce one set of bananas in its lifetime, after which you have to cut the stalk down and start again."
It is so wasteful, in fact, that work carried out in 2019 by University of New South Wales associate professor Jayashree Arcot found that only 12% of the plant is used by the banana industry. The rest is discarded as waste.
But banana farmers in Nigeria are looking to change that, by putting much of that leftover 88% to good use.
Instead of just cutting down the stem, some farmers like Jack have found a way to extract fibres from the plant, which can then be processed into fabrics. This suggests a future where fabrics made from banana trees could offer the textile industry a viable sustainable and biodegradable alternative to synthetic materials, which are disposable, single-use, and harm the environment.
A future where the banana plant is no longer wasteful, and many of our textiles are made from banana fibres, is getting nearer by the day.
Like many emerging fashion and textile trends, the idea of making fabric from banana stems is not entirely new. The Japanese have had banana fibre clothes since the 13th century. The Japanese word Bashôfu translates to banana-fibre cloth.
The Philippines, which is one of the top banana-producing countries in the world, also has its own culture and history of making clothes this way. For people there, making banana fabric is logical. India — which has become the world's largest banana producer — is now the world's largest banana fabric maker and exporter.
While banana fabric is relatively common in some parts of the world, a lack of technology to produce it on a mass scale has limited its commerical use globally. As a result, the fabric can make for an expensive, niche product, but this looks set to change. The technology required for mass producing banana fabrics is improving, alongside developments in technical knowledge among banana farmers. A future where the banana plant is no longer wasteful, and many of our textiles are made from banana fibres, is getting nearer by the day.
Banana farmers derive fibres from the plant in two ways. The stems on plants that don’t produce fruit are harvested when they mature, which is usually after one year, and fruit-producing plants are harvested once the fruit is harvested. The outer skin of the stem is then peeled off to reveal the sought-after inner trunk. Some companies use specialized machines with knives to extract the fibres, while others remove the fibres manually by soaking the stems in softening chemicals and then peeling out the fibres.
The fibres are then dried in the sun to strengthen and whiten, and then they are separated and organized based on their quality, how they feel, and whether they came from the inner or outer peel. Grade "A" fibres — the best — are often used as alternatives to silk in the fashion industry, because they are the most supple.
Once separated, the fibres are spun into yarn that can be treated with dyes and colour fasteners. Some companies stop at this point and use the spun yarn to make handicrafts and minor interior décor. Others go a step further and weave the yarn to create fabrics that can be used to make clothes, bags and other items.
The fabric produced from banana fibres is a very fine, soft, and supple material, which is why the best fibres can be used as alternatives to silk.
"It isn't quite as supple as cotton; almost no other natural fabric is. It is, however, soft enough to be comfortable on the skin," says Charles, who is also a banana farmer in Nigeria. "Banana fabric is not going to irritate you."
Banana fibre fabrics are rich in many qualities, which would make any banana fabric a valuable material; it mimics the qualities of many synthetic materials while also being sustainable and biodegradable. Charles is particularly proud of this latter quality: “I am glad to be involved in making the environment a better place. I might not be a billionaire, but I’ll play my part.”
Those diverse qualities mean that banana fabric has myriad potential uses. It has high tensile strength, so it won’t break when stretched, and it is very durable, so it is unlikely to tear despite repeated use. It is a natural sorbent and it is waterproof, too, especially when waxed. This versatility is clear in the diversity of banana fabric goods that are emerging, a demand which is inspired not only by the desire for biodegradable materials but which recognizes the fabric’s wide array of qualities.
Fabrics made from banana fibre are becoming popular materials for making clothing accessories like gloves and scarves, owing to the fabric’s good insulating properties.
Her team conducted a study to find an absorbent alternative to chemically produced sanitary pads. Their analysis recognized the absorptive characteristics of banana fibres, and ultimately, they decided to use it.
In Japan, Kijka-bashfu is a traditional Okinawan technique for manufacturing textiles from bashō or Japanese banana fibre. This technique was used for making alternatives to cotton and silk, which would be worn as ceremonial garments by the wealthy, especially during the Ryukyu dynasty. It does not stick to the skin in hot weather and is thus appropriate for the Okinawa climate.
Banana fabrics are also proving to be viable for making reusable sanitary pads.
Elizabeth Scharpf, a Harvard Business School graduate, launched a non-profit organization called Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). Her team conducted a study to find an absorbent alternative to chemically produced sanitary pads. Their analysis recognized the absorptive characteristics of banana fibres, and ultimately, they decided to use it.
Amrita Saigal and Kristin Kagetsu, engineers at MIT, did similar work to Elizabeth’s team, making low-cost sanitary pads for rural women out of banana fibre. The sanitary pad marketed as Saathi is made from banana fibres sourced from a banana plantation belt near Ahmedabad, India.
Safe, a start-up based in Delhi, India, has also been able to produce sanitary pads made of composite banana fibres. Safe’s sanitary pads are also made with Quadrant True Lock Technology, which the company says make their pads leakproof, and they can last up to two years or 120 washes.
The fact that the material is hardwearing lends itself well to an array of other uses, too.
Green Banana Paper, a company founded by Matt Simpson on the island of Micronesia, makes vegan wallets, handbags, beads, and paper out of banana fabrics.
But given the fabric’s versatility, perhaps we should be wondering why we didn’t cotton on to the benefits of banana fibre fabrics sooner.
Banana fibre has traditionally been limited to unfashionable uses such as doormats, wall weaves, and ropes. This was due to a lack of technological know-how for refining the fabrics into finer products. Banana fibre is still used for these traditional purposes in some societies like the Philippines and India.
Banana fibre is used to make paper for Japan's currency, the Yen, owing to the strength of banana fibres. According to Indian researchers, the paper made from banana fibre has a shelf life of more than 100 years. Compared with the Indian currency, the Rupee — which is made from high-grade cotton rags and pulp — the Japanese Yen can be folded up to 3,000 times before it rips.
Car manufacturer Mercedes Benz has even found use for banana fabrics, which were used in its spare tires for the second-generation A-Class, which was produced between 2004 and 2012. It helped to improve the road resistance of the spare tire, allowing it to endure impacts and environmental exposure such as water, UVB/UV radiation, and a few chemicals.
As the textile and fashion industries look to reduce the harm caused by their materials, banana fabrics will be in increasingly high demand. They offer the material qualities the industry needs and a renewable supply of fabric while reducing the industry’s impact on the planet. But given the fabric’s versatility, perhaps we should be wondering why we didn’t cotton on to the benefits of banana fibre fabrics sooner.