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Fiber from Plants Finding New Uses (January 9, 2004)

banana stems
Clothes made using banana stems (Nisshinbo Industries)
From underwear made from corn to fabric produced using banana trees and T-shirts woven from bamboo, plant fibers are making their way into clothing and other everyday products. In addition to making use of material that had previously been discarded as waste, these new materials offer the added benefit of being biodegradable, meaning that they can be broken down into water and carbon dioxide by microorganisms in the soil. By reducing the need for petroleum and lumber, the burden on the environment is reduced. Both manufacturers and consumers are showing great interest in products made with these new biomaterials.

Antibacterial Properties Reduce Itchiness
Several years ago Kanebo Gohsen Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Kanebo Ltd., developed a synthetic fiber called Lactron, which is made from polylactic acid obtained by fermenting cornstarch. The company has employed Lactron in such products as clothing, towels, and garbage bags. Recently, clothes made of Lactron for women, seniors, and babies have become quite popular because of their pleasant feel on the skin. Because Lactron has about the same pH as human skin and also boasts antibacterial properties, it has been particularly well-received by sufferers of atopic dermatitis, who say that it reduces itchiness. In addition to being softer than cotton or polyester, Lactron retains moisture well. While it costs a good deal more than polyester, it is still more affordable than silk.

Toray Industries, meanwhile, has recently developed a biodegradable fiber, Ecodear, made using corn. This new material is being used in the spare-tire covers and floor mats for the Raum, Toyota Motor Co.'s completely redesigned compact car released in May 2003.

Banana Stems Become Denim-like Cloth
Banana stems have also been in the spotlight as a source of fiber. Bananas are currently grown in 129 countries and regions around the world, and some 1 billion tons of stems and leaves are thrown away annually. In fiscal 2002 (April 2002 to March 2003) Nisshinbo Industries developed a type of cloth made using banana stems, the first such material in the world. In addition to absorbing water well, fiber taken from banana stems dries quickly and offers a high level of breathability. The company expects to release to market by spring 2004 denim-like material and bathmats made using a combination of 70% cotton and 30% banana stems.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute is working to develop the technology needed to create thread and textiles from banana-stem fiber, and Nagoya City University is researching how to use bananas in the manufacture of Japanese paper.

Bamboo plants are said to grow over a meter a day during periods of growth. There are hopes that if bamboo could be used as a source of fiber, this fast-growing plant could be used instead of trees, which take decades to grow. In April 2003 Toray began selling T-shirts and traditional Japanese clothing made from material containing bamboo fiber.

Cutting-edge Biotechnology
The leaves of the shell ginger plant give off a unique aroma and contain antibacterial properties. In Okinawa it is prized for its use as a wrapping for mochi (rice cakes), as insect repellent, and in beauty products. The stem, however, which makes up most of the plant, is treated as industrial waste. A local company that noticed how much material was being wasted joined hands with Kurabo Industries to develop a fiber made of a blend of this plant and cotton. An Okinawan version of Hawaiian shirts made using this new material is expected to hit stores in the spring of 2004.

Developing new materials using cutting-edge technology, such as biotechnology, is one of Japan's strengths. In this era of environmental consciousness, natural materials will likely find their way into more and more products that we use every day.

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Related Web Sites
Kanebo Gohsen Ltd.
Kanebo Ltd.
Toray Industries
Nisshinbo Industries
Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute
Nagoya City University
Kurabo Industries

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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