November 16, 2016

November 16, 2016

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A diamond in the rough

November 16, 2016

A Dutch company makes pallets from pressed coconut husks, following an old and almost forgotten procedure. The raw material is more sustainable and cheaper than wood.



In de mid-nineties, a man entered the office of Jan van Dam, a researcher at the Wageningen University. Under his arm he carried a piece of wood board. “It looked like a normal piece of hardboard,” says Van Dam. “But according to this man, it was not made out of logged trees, but completely made out of coconut bark, the outer shell of the fruit.” Van Dam, specialised in developing materials out of plant fibre, was surprised. “Rock hard, wood-like board material from coconut husk? That was new to me.”


The man said that his aunt Willy van Vreeswijk made the piece of board in Indonesia in 1948. With a steam explosion, she pressed ground up coconut husk in to a plank. In the seventies, a TNO workgroup looked into it, but afterwards the process fell into oblivion. 


Until Van Dam and his team went to work on it. “I saw a huge potential here. Mainly in Asia, enormous amounts of coconuts are produced, which leads to a huge pile of wasted coconut husk.” The husk is the hairy outer shell that covers the brown shell of the coconut. After harvesting, it is separated from the coconut and no longer has any function. The husks are being used to make brushes, rope and coco mats, but the demand for those items is much smaller than the supply.


Van Dam: “In many tropical countries, the coconut waste is rotting away by the side of the road or is set on fire. If you make raw materials out of the husk, you will hit several birds with one stone: you prevent deforestation, because less wood will be produced, you give the farmers an extra income, because their waste is worth money, and you prevent the material from slowly rotting away, reducing pollution and climate change.”


However, the procedure that aunt Willy used was not optimal, Van Dam says. “We looked for improvements and came up with a technique where the ground up husk is pressed together at a high temperature. There is nothing complicated about it, it is low-tech.”


A big advantage is it doesn’t require any glue. The husk contains its own natural glue, lignin, which is being activated by the pressure and the heat. The only raw material is husk. According to Van Dam, the rock hard boards are stronger than MDF and can resist fire, moist, and – very important in the tropics – termites.


Van Dam and his researchers opened a pilot factory in the Philippines in 2005. “Due to local circumstances, it failed. For example, there was no sufficient power supply.” Van Dam had not patented the technique on purpose and detailed it in a final report, so that anyone could use it. But it did not happen. Again, the pressing of coconut husk was threatened to fall into oblivion. 


The tide turned six years ago. Entrepreneur Michiel Vos was looking for a natural glue to use bamboo fibre to make an alternative to hardwood. Vos: “I ended at Van Dam. Why don’t you use coconut husk, he asked? It contains the glue as well as the materials to glue together. And anywhere in Asia it is found almost for free on the side of the road. Stunned, I left his office with his final report under my arm.”


The entrepreneur was impressed, but needed to find a good application. Vos: “I got to pallets. Asia produces more than a billion pallets every year. They require softwood, which does not grow in the tropics, thus is imported from Canada, New Zealand or Eastern Europe on a large scale. Complete forests are being shipped to Asia to make pallets, that are mainly used to ship products back to America or Europe. It is clearly a lot more efficient to make them in Asia with local materials.”


Vos’ company CocoPallet won several innovation and entrepreneurs awards, found investors, and now has a pilot factory in Indonesia. “Tomorrow I will visit a potential customer in Indonesia that uses twenty million pallets a year.” This way, aunt Willy’s discovery goes back to its country of origin.


Coconut husk can also be used to make other things, such as furniture panels. Sylvia ten Houten’s company Goodhout, that has also developed Van Dam’s procedure, is planning to do this. Ten Houten is currently talking to investors and producers in Asia, she explains on request.


Aren’t furniture panels a much higher-quality application? Vos: “Possibly, but it is a tough market: you need to convince a lot of individual consumers that a coconut husk is a good alternative for something that, in their eyes, is already sufficient. With pallets, it’s much easier: they just have to do what they are meant for, whatever they are made of, and the buyer is content. They can order millions at once.


“CocoPallets have important advantages: they are stronger and lighter than the old-fashioned pallets, they are fire retardant, and thanks to an adjusted design, also easier to stack, so they take up less space. Above all, they are cheaper, and a lower price is always the best sales argument for a sustainable product.”


The grounded husk is being pressed together under high temperatures. There is nothing complicated about it.

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