Water Hyacinth and the Fabric of Life.


Water hyacinth may soon be valued as an asset rather than a scourge, thanks to a technique devised in the Philippines to turn the plant into a textile.

Scientists from the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI) have made fibres from the stems of the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). These can then be blended with polyester to make clothing and domestic textiles.

E. crassipes is almost 60 per cent cellulose. The stems undergo a series of treatments, including boiling, to soften them and reduce their moisture content, explains Nora B. Mangalindan, officer in charge at the PTRI’s research and development division.

Water hyacinth is a fast-growing, free-floating plant of Latin American origin which has invaded water bodies throughout Asia and Africa, including Lakes Victoria and Naivasha in Kenya. The plant’s rapid spread in many parts of Africa over the past decade has caused great concern.

When not controlled, the plant’s leaves block sunlight, reducing the water’s oxygen levels and killing fish. In addition, the plant chokes waterways, reducing biodiversity and hindering water transport. It also provides an attractive habitat for malaria carrying mosquitoes and snails harbouring the schistosomiasis flatworm.

Holia Onggo, a researcher at the Research Center For Physics at the Indonesian Institute of Science says that, handled well, water hyacinth can be transformed into a source of income for communities.

She says a number of practical uses have been found for the plant. Stems can be turned into furniture, paper and handicrafts, for instance, or used to create fertilisers or biogas.

“The technology required to produce raw materials from water hyacinth is not demanding,” says Onggo, who has been involved in training communities to turn the plants into profitable ventures.

With car manufacturers turning the spotlight on hemp and other plant fibre sources in the construction of vehicles, water hyacinth should not remain in the shadows.

With acknowledgement to Ella Syafputri, “Water weed given new life as fabric“, 5 October 2009.


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