Coir natural fiber (pronounced COY-er) is familiar to most of us as the material used to construct coarse, wiry outside doormats as well as the coarse fiber liners found in hanging flower baskets.
The fiber originates as part of the common grocery store coconut. Each coconut is actually the single seed of a fruit of the coconut palm tree.
The coir fiber is retrieved from a layer of fibrous pulp that can be found under the external leathery skin. This pulp is stripped from the seed of the coconut palm before it is sent to market. In some countries, coir fiber is named ‘coprah.’
Coconut Palm trees flower monthly and it takes a year for each resulting fruit to ripen. Therefore, one tree always contains fruits at 12 stages of maturity. The fruits are harvested approximately every 45-60 days. They can be picked up off the ground if they have ripened and fallen or climbers may pick the fruit still on the tree.
In some areas, monkeys are taught to climb the trees and help with the harvest of the coconuts. Each tree can yield 50 to 100 coconuts a year.
The fruit of the coconut palm is exceptionally hardy. The tree itself is very useful, providing not only food and fibers, but drink, fuel, and building materials.
Coconut palms abound in the tropical regions of the world, although commercially produced coir comes mostly from India and Sri Lanka. Coconut palms originated in Southeast Asia and are grown in more than 93 countries in the world today. They are one of the oldest plant families and have been cultivated for around 4,000 years.
In Micronesia and Polynesia, coir was called sennit and sennit roping was the main way to connect pieces in the construction of boats, weapons, buildings, and tools until the introduction of iron nails from European explorers in the late 18th century.
Today, coir is also economically important in Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, and the Ivory Coast among others.
Ripe coconuts are husked immediately. Unripe coconuts are often seasoned for a month. They are spread out on the ground in a single layer to keep them dry.
If manual labor is used, in order to remove the coir fiber, the coconut will be placed on a steel spike to split the husk and then the pulp layer can be easily peeled off. If modern husking machines are used, they can split and peel about 2000 coconuts per hour!
There are 3 processing steps:
Depending on the type of fiber to be processed, the curing or retting stage of coir natural fiber production results in significant water pollution, though research has begun to find ways to treat this problem.
If the fibers are extracted from fully ripened coconuts, they yield brown coir, which is strong and highly resistant to abrasion. This dark brown coir is the one used mostly in floor mats, brushes, sacks, and upholstery padding. Fresh water is used to process brown coir. It is stronger than flax and cotton but not as flexible because it contains more lignin and less cellulose. It is unsuitable for dyeing as well.
If the fiber is extracted from the husks of coconuts shortly before they ripen, it is light brown or white in color, is softer and finer, but is not as strong as the brown coir. This type of coir is usually spun into yarn and woven into floor mats or twisted into rope or twine. Sea water and fresh water are both used to process white coir.
Fiber length is also important in coir natural fiber processing. Both the brown and white types of coir fibers range in length from 4 to 12 inches. Bristle fibers must be at least 8 inches long. Mattress fibers, which are finer in texture, are the shorter fibers. A 10 oz. coconut yields about 1/3 bristle fiber and 2/3 mattress fiber.
It is very durable with the ability to hold water, as well as the fact it is biodegradable, makes it important in the production of geotextiles. These are covers for bare soil laid down to control erosion and to promote the growth of protective ground covers. Their hairy texture helps hold the seeds and soil. It can provide good soil support for up to 3 years. These geotextiles resist sunlight, facilitate seed germination, and are 100% bio-degradable with a slow rate of degradation, allowing them to last for several years on the ground.
Fortunately, in the 1980s processes were developed to make the waste material of coir processing (dust/pith) into a growth medium called coco peat, now used as an alternative to other materials like peat moss and vermiculite.
There are some downsides to using coco peat as a replacement for traditional peat as a soil conditioner for plant cultivation:
Some examples of the end product uses for coir:
NOTE: Beware of thin coir outdoor mats that can be slippery. Sometimes a vinyl or rubber backing will be added and water from wet shoes can become trapped by the backing.
Many of the developing coconut growing countries do not possess knowledge of the technology available to utilize the entire coconut husk for commercial purposes. Thus, production is usually scattered and in small volumes.
Today there are organizations attempting to promote best practices in coir processing to increase quantity and higher quality as well as to provide improvements in working conditions. The end result is expected to be higher profits and better income. Ultimately, this will help to reduce poverty and and will also provide environmental benefits from the commercial use of the coco dust/pith/ peat waste product.
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