CITY OF SAN FERNANDO -- Tobacco stalk, the most common agricultural waste that tobacco farmers have been discarding for centuries since commercial tobacco farming was introduced in the islands during the dawn of the tobacco monopoly, is in fact a diamond in the rough.
Tobacco stalk has been found to be a good source of pulp for the production of paper. Tobacco paper processing impacts less on the environment and has the potential to penetrate the country's P30 billion paper industry if given a chance.
However, tobacco paper production remains a handicraft and hand-made industry.
Tobacco scrap has been found to be an effective mollouscide, meaning it is a cheap alternative in controlling farm snails that eat palay at the start of the cropping season. One research has also shown that tobacco scarp can be used as alternative organic soil conditioner.
However, tobacco scrap has yet to be processed commercially.
Tobacco dust has also been proven by research done by the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) as a boost to local aquaculture and can even jumpstart initiatives for more organic aquaculture programs.
However, tobacco dust has yet to be fully developed for wider use.
So what is keeping these wonderful prospects from reaching full potential?
In 1998, a research done by Agrupis, S., Maekawa, E. and Suzuki, K. J on the possible industrial utilization of tobacco stalks revealed that tobacco stalks have shown to posses the characteristics of a raw material for pulp and paper application.
"Fiber dimensions, chemical composition, and soda and soda-AQ pulping of tobacco stalks were examined to assess if they were suitable for pulp and paper production. The results showed that the morphological characteristics of tobacco stalks were similar to those of non-woods and hardwoods," the research said.
Author Jed Yabut said that the pulp and paper industry contributes about P30 billion per year in domestic sales value to the economy, or saves the country $700 million per year in foreign exchange from imported paper and board.
He added that as of 2012 the local paper industry directly employs about 6000, personnel, mostly skilled workers and technical professionals, and contribute value to the economy by sustaining the livelihood opportunities of about 1.2 million workers in the wastepaper collection, sorting, and hauling sub-sectors.
If pulp from tobacco stalk would transcend its current state as a handicraft product in can very well contribute in the wider paper market.
Currently, paper produced from tobacco is hand-made using processes of bio-mechanical pulping and non-conventional bleaching, which produce less impact on the environment. NTA is the only known supplier of tobacco hand-made paper as of press time. The NTA, in the past years, have trained farmer-leaders from four tobacco-based cooperatives from Pangasinan, Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur. The idea is to help farmers earn more through creating cottage industries.
Hand-made tobacco paper is mainly used for all-purpose cards, stationeries, invitations, gift wrappers, bags among others.
But imagine if tobacco paper is industrialized further. Around† 156 kg of tobacco stalks per would yield 60 kg or pulp this means almost 0.3 cubic metres of wood could be saved from forests from being converted to paper.
Though more research is needed on whether tobacco paper can compete in the commercial paper industry on an industrialized level, the prospects still are too tempting to ignore.
Impact on local industries
A research of James, et al. from PhilRice-Batac demonstrated the use of tobacco scrap before and after transplanting to control harmful snail populations in rice fields. The field test was done in seven municipalities of Ilocos Norte.
The research revealed that weekly use of tobacco scraps significantly reduced the population of golden kuhol from 60 to 90 percent.
"The affected area was minimized by 80 percent and damaged hills by 84 percent. Where farmers' practice and no treatment were employed, an average 23.39 percent and 4 percent reduction in population were observed, respectively," the research said.
Rice plants treated with tobacco scraps had better crop stand, greener leaves, and taller plants, the study added. The study also showed that fields treated with tobacco scraps produced the highest yield per hectare (7.37 t/ha) compared to farmers' practice (6.38 t/ha) and no control (6.19 t/ha).
The country's aqua-culture has also found a promising use for tobacco dust as it has been proven effective as molluscide against snails and other fish pond pest but also enhances the growth of the "lablab", a pond fish-food.
Again, tobacco dust leaves no residue and is a perfect organic alternative in aquaculture farms. According to the NTA, tobacco dust acts swiftly to protect fish and its eggs from predatory snails and other creatures that exist in ponds and fish pens.
The NTA conducted field testing in fishponds in Bulacan, Pampanga, Bataan, Pangasinan and Ilocos Sur confirmed the validity of the scientific studies on tobacco dust and its benefits.
More initiative for investment, government funding
Hipolito Carlos, a former tobacco contract grower, said that initiatives for tobacco by-products have been seriously pursued by research done by the NTA and private entities.
"The immediate objective was to help local tobacco farmers earn more. While we should commend NTA for all it has done to discover the potentials of tobacco by-products we should also ask government to seriously consider the wider perspective of creating bigger industries on these by-products," Carlos said.
He shares the opinion of other businessmen in saying that such by-products could even benefit more tobacco farmers and even create bigger industries if there are investments coming in from the private and government sectors.
Carlos said investment on tobacco by-product industries, from the government and private sector, will not threaten the conventional use of tobacco for cigarette production and instead will produce off-shoot industries that can complement the industry. More industries depending on the different parts of tobacco would mean more farmers cultivating high-quality tobacco and more farmers benefiting from more industries.
Carlos said that there is a need for a shift to industrial and commercial approach rather than the small town cottage industry perspective.
For the people involved in the various research and promotion of tobacco by-products, it is not a question of whether or not these products will see their full potential in the wider commercialized market. Rather, it is a question of when government and the private sector investments and developments would come in. They earnestly hope that it will be soon.