In 2017, global pineapple production weighed in at over 27.4 million metric tons. The fruit is prized for its flavor, sweetness, and health benefits—attributes that often capture our attention at Farmfolio. What many of us don’t consider is the massive quantity of pineapple leaves that every plantation produces. It was these leaves, and the strong fibers they contain, that captured the imagination of Dr. Carmen Hijosa, ultimately resulting in Piñatex, a new sustainable textile making headlines in the fashion world.
Piñatex —Producing Textiles from Pineapple Waste?
In the 1990’s Carmen Hijosa was working as a consultant to the leathergoods design and manufacturing industry in the Philippines. In her work, she was confronted by the significant environmental impact of chemical tanning and industrial leather production. While she quickly decided she could not ethically continue in the field, knowing what she now did, she was also motivated to discover a textile alternative that could be produced on a commercial scale, but would, in contrast, employ a cradle-to-cradle design model of creating new value and life from waste products. This passion ultimately led Hijosa to pursue a PhD program in her late 50s at the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Art. Over the course of seven years of research and development, Hijosa brought Piñatex to life.
Piñatex is sourced from pineapple leaf fiber. The tough leaves caught Hijosa’s eye “Because of their characteristics—they’re very fine and strong and flexible—my idea was what if I make a mesh with these fibers, not unlike what leather is,” she told Reuters. “And that was the beginning of this new material.”
Of course, making a mesh from the leaves is far from a simple process. Paul Vergara, COO of Panama Golden Pineapple, worked in the textile industry for 18 years before starting in pineapple, offering him a unique vantage point on the Piñatex project. First, the leaves must be harvested and decorticated (stripping the fiber for further processing). “With a decortication machine you can have all that material come out, and then you can dry that fiber and you can bleach it.” Vergara says. “Once you bleach it, then it’s a white fiber and you can dye it in multiple colors, and you can also bond it together. That’s what a non-woven fabric is, and that’s what [Piñatex] is selling—a non-woven fabric made out of all these fibers.”
While Vergara sees the value of repurposing the leaves, he also recognizes there are hurdles to make such a product work on a large scale. “The investment in the equipment for textiles is not cheap,” he explains. “It’s expensive stuff, and this equipment needs to be run, from my experience in the textile business, 24-hours-a-day. You need to have enough material to feed one of these fabric manufacturing plants at least 60 or 70 percent full. So that’s one of the challenges.”
Indeed, a single square meter of Piñatex is comprised of 460 pineapple leaves. “You need to have a large, large industry be willing to sell you all that waste from the fields, so that you could process it and generate a lot of fabric . . . These guys, Piñatex, they’re doing it . . . but the volumes they’re doing are very small. To do a large project, you need a lot of fiber—a lot!”
“It is doable,” Vergara recognizes, “but you need a large industry around you to supply it, and be willing to supply it for a reasonable price.” For now, Piñatex appears to have found that supply where its work began, in the Philippines, and for Hijosa, the positive impact Piñatex makes on the local farming communities growing the pineapples is at the heart of what her company, Ananas Anam, does.
“The vision and mission of our company is really to help improve the social and ecological programs with whom we work,” she said at the 2018 World Forum for a Responsible Economy. “The activity within regions is very much part of what we are doing. We work with local communities. So we start locally, and we end up globally, but what happens locally is very much part of what we try to do—helping the farming communities. By using a waste material, we are helping to improve their lives.”
Since its inception, Piñatex has been named quality textile of the month by US magazine Textile World, been incorporated into a line of Hugo Boss men’s footwear, and has even graced fashion icons at the Met Gala. It will intriguing to see if demand increases beyond a niche market, allowing Piñatex to offer more pineapple farmers an additional revenue stream.