Transform Australia, the company to operate the factory, was established over two years ago, following initial discussions between Tom Johnston and Ramy Azer, from Papyrus, at a World Banana Congress.

Johnston had invented a mechanical harvester that could pick bananas without damaging the tree, which provided longer lengths of material for Azer to work with.

When established, the factory will process two million trees per annum, producing a minimum of 40,000 metres of paper.

Papyrus Australia was launched in 1997 as a research and development company based at the University of Adelaide research precinct in Thebarton.

Over the past five years, numerous university, state and federal government grants and private funding have helped to bring ‘long fibre’ technology at banana plantations to the commercial stage.

Azer says the company is excited about the prospect and has the support of banana farmers from the Atherton Tablelands region in Northern Queensland who will supply banana trees to the plant.

“Banana trees are the fastest growing plants in the world, up to 40cm per day,” Azer explains. 

“The banana tree only fruits once and then it is cut. They are non-seasonal and are harvested throughout the year. Worldwide bananas are grown on 9 million hectares in 146 countries, and there are between 40 to 120 billion trees available per year, so there is great potential.”

Azer said he hoped the first trial commercial production samples would be available around 18 months from the start of the project.

“Early products from the experimental production plant (100gsm, 2 ply paper) are being made into boutique products in North Queensland and, as they are unique in the world, are selling at the top end of the market. All end products have been developed and marketed by Transform Australia’s team.”

To date, banana ply paper has been used to make prints using original Queensland artwork, wallets and fashion bags, menus, candle wrappings, bookmarks and business cards.

One outfit consisting of a hat, vest, and skirt has been made to show the versatility of the fibre. Screens, lampshades, blinds, and laminated furniture will be made in the future as more material is supplied.

Azer said numerous applications were possible because banana ply paper was much stronger than wood pulp paper. The ‘bursting factor’ (which is used as a measure of strength in the paper industry) for banana fibre is 44 units, ordinary paper rates at 15-20. It also has a full length laminated veneered fibre structure that is much stronger than current paper structure.

Banana ply paper is water repellent (similar to waxed paper) but still retains its loading integrity when fully wet. Banana ply paper does not go up in flames when exposed to a naked flame and when a flame is removed it self extinguishes.

According to Azer, these attributes are advantageous in penetrating the building products and product packaging markets.

Papyrus Australia, in conjunction with the University of Western Sydney, has developed a process to control the surface colour and qualities of banana ply paper.

It is now possible to convert banana ply paper into perfect white office class paper or any colour paper without causing damage to the environment or greatly increasing costs.  

The technology includes the scientific know-how, processes, machinery and equipment necessary to convert banana tree trunks into a variety of paper products, Azer explained.

“The process is unique and fits technically between the conventional paper pulping technology and the lumber veneering and custom wood technologies. In short, the technology produces a sort of ‘laminated plywood’ made from the banana tree trunk.

"The resulting banana tree fibre plywood can substitute for paper (starting from 50gsm) to board suitable for furniture, packaging products and building products.

“The banana paper products are cost competitive compared to paper products currently on the market.”

Azer attributes its competitiveness to the following:

• raw material is renewable, sustainable, farm waste and accessible and available all year round

• the harvesting and delivery of farm products is much cheaper than logging and wood chipping remote forests

• no pulping means no chemicals, no water and great savings on energy usage

• the process is neither labour intensive nor energy intensive

Azer said Papyrus had developed a state of the art microwave curing and drying process that works instantaneously and is energy efficient, further reducing the cost of production.

He says the range of applications proposed for the paper included building products to packaging and stationary, wallpaper, automotive door and roof panelling as well as degradable flowerpots.  

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