The Colombian coffee you drink was, at some point in its production, shipped in a sack made of fique fibres. Currently, only 4% of the fique plant, an aloe-like plant from the Andean region, is used for sacking. The other 96% of the plant is sloughed off as toxic waste. This represents a significant health hazard to people who process the plant to extract the fibre.
But techniques exist for extracting the fibres which could be both more sustainable and more lucrative. In a recent workshop on green chemistry held in Medellin, Colombia, researchers showed participants that it was possible to carry out the same process by using mechanical rather than chemical techniques. By doing so, farmers could reduce the health hazards and the carbon footprint associated with fique processing, and potentially find new sources of income and employment for their families at the same time, by transforming the juices into biopesticides or cosmetics.
The workshop was financed by the U.N, offered by researchers from McGill and Yale universities, and led by Chao-Jun Li, a McGill green chemistry researcher.
“Small steps like these can lead to transformative changes, with a tremendous economic impact,” says Li. He sees both a huge need and great potential for green chemistry to bring about changes in middle-income countries such as Colombia.
“Sharing this kind of knowledge in a developing country can stimulate creativity in industry because they are able to build from scratch. Think of cell phone adoption in countries in Africa or in India,” says Li. “In countries without much infrastructure there is the possibility for an out-of-the-box kind of thinking that can change the economy to make it more efficient, and result in greater social benefits for all.”