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Of the three, coir, jute and sisal, jute is the fibre most used in producing countries. A decline in the global market for jute in the last decades has been compensated for by rising Indian consumption. As long as use in India is protected by regulations, there is a low incentive to export and the price is supported. There is frequent talk of the regulatory regime being loosened and for the industry to have to adjust to free markets but this has not taken place and is not seriously expected to do so in the near future. However, this situation has led to jute loosing relative market share to coir and coir has gone a long way in narrowing the gap in production with jute.
The order of production in 2009 is:
million tons
Jute 3.0
Coir 0.9
Sisal 0.3
Abaca 0.1
Extracted from the husks of coconuts. only 10% of the globally available husks are used. Therefore, there is very substantial availability of husks for sustainable fibre production. Only India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam are major producers. Two leading coconut producing countries, Philippines and Indonesia do not produce major quantities although the Philippine coir industry is of long standing. There has been some growth in recent years, but by no means significant growth. Coir prices as against average labour costs is probably the most important factor that traditionally kept production of coir restricted to India and Sri Lanka, joined by Vietnam and Thailand in recent years and now reportedly Ghana.
There are two catagories of coir:
1 when extracted after long periods of retting in brackish waters, from 'green' immature husks, the resulting fibre is called white fibre, suited to spinning and favoured for use as mats and matting, mainly in India.
2 when from 'brown' husks of mature coconuts, after soaking or dry extraction, the fibre is known as brown fibre, favoured for pads, upholstery and geotextiles, most favoured by Sri lanka but also India and Thailand.
The distinction between the two has been blurred through the practice of trying to make cheaper brown fibre appear to be more like the more expensive white fibres and in trying to impart some of the qualities associated with white fibre to brown fibre as well as reducing retting periods and using mechanical means of extracting white fibre to make it chepaer to produce. While the distinctions can become blurred it does not change the basic quality differences.
Over 78% of coir is today in the form of brown fibre and 64% of all coir is produced in India and 90% of white fibre. It is safe to characterise white coir as an almost exclusively Indian product. Brown fibre today is mostly being used as pads and padding in upholstery and geotextiles. The pads and padding stretch from needled pads used in innerspring furniture and mattresses to rubberised coir as seats for Daimler Benz and Volkswagen cars, from $1,000 to $8,000 per ton.
Rubberised coir, made up of roughly equivalent quantitites of coir and natural latex, represent high value for coir. In India, rubberised coir mattresses are very popular, as they are in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia. They used to make excellent rubberised coir mattresses in Sweden and Germany and still do for cots. It is all a matter of moving away from commodity status to that of a product. Rubberised coir sold as sheets for use in mattresses is probably worth less than $3,000 per ton but as mattresses is worth over $8,000 per ton.
Jute has played an important role in the development of world commerce. Its past has been very closely related to that of soft commodities as it was widely used for carrying the latter in sacks. It is now used only for a small part of that trade having been substituted by bulk storage and by sacks of plastic sacks. The process of being substituted has greatly diminished trade in jute but much of that slack has been used up by growth in consumption in India, where the use of jute sacks are protected through regulations.
Both the leading producers, India and Bangladesh consider jute to be an important crop cultivated alternating with rice but India has tended in recent years to protect the price of jue marginally more than the price of rice through minimum intervention prices and Bangladesh has allowed rice to be higher in price than jute leading to a gradual decline in area planted to jute in Bangladesh.
Production has grown consistently over the last half century but the increase in production has been gradual and the proportion traded has been falling. A protected market in India provides too much comfort for producers to seriously pursue exports. The crop is simply too politically sensitive to loose its protection in India. Bangladesh has been supplying an increasing volume of raw jute to the indian industry and has, through its emphasis on rice and lack of initiative on jute, neglected the fibre.
Interestingly, in Pakistan jute does not enjoy protection but has continued to flourish as sacks for grains. The industry is viable and undertakes some exports. The country suffers from the disadvantage that it has to import its fibre and has relatively high labour costs but lower processing costs has kept the production of jute competitive if unimaginative in sticking to sacks.
In terms of global production, sacking remains the most important form of use, mainly due to the increased consumption in India. Part of the hessian and part of the other catgories include geotextiles. while jute led the way among natural fibres in its use as geotextiles in the 1970s, its use is now dwarfed by that of coir. A growing end use is as jute shopping bags considered a green alternative to polypropylene as well as a fashionable bag.
Brazil and Tanzania are the two leading producers of sisal and, unlike the case for coir and jute, production of sisal has been declining consistently in recent years due mainly to the decline in use for baler and binder twine where it has been substituted by alternatives or alternative methods. Alternative uses are being urgently pursued. However, overall use since 1980 has declined by 40%.
In its period when sisal use exceeded 500,000 tons, sisal was favoured for baler and binder twine, wall and floor coverings. Although new potential uses as automotive components promises a change in fortune, measures to date have been ill thought out and have not succeeded as can be seen from the chart above. Some producing countries have pursued possible use as pulp for paper.
We all use Abaca in the form of tea bags, business users still prefer manila envelopes, sausage manufacturers like abaca casing and it is used for legal papers and printing Japanese currency notes. The fibre remains highly valued for specific markets but in the absence of positive measures, demand has stagnated with a decline over the years.
Abaca is grown in far smaller quantities than Jute, Coir, or sisal, philippines and Ecuador are the main producers. Following a period of growth, production has eased back to the levels in the early 1960s. The importance of abaca is due to special quality characteristics that made it ideal for printing currency, strong envelopes, wrapping sausages, cigarette wraps and tea bags.