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New uses found for papyrus

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By Bystander

Papyrus (Callie Jones)The papyrus sedge, Cyperus papyrus, has been put to good use for thousands of years. It is best known for the paper-like material produced from its pith. This was first made in Egypt in the third millennium BC.

But papyrus also has a role as a fuel and has long been used to make a variety of products, including boats, mattresses, mats, rope, sandals, hats, baskets, fish trays, roofs, ceilings and fences.

And now, researchers have shown that it has other potential uses.

Workers from Makerere University in Uganda have demonstrated that the growing sedge can be used to soak up toxins and other noxious residues from abattoir effluent, which is a major source of pollution in waters entering Lake Victoria.

The researchers tested various reeds, rushes and sedges to see which, if any, might be able to clean up waste water from slaughterhouses. They found that papyrus was able to remove nitrogen and phosphorus ions as well as residues of organic matter present in the waste water.

The plant absorbs these pollutants through its vast root system — so vast that a single square metre area of growing papyrus has a root network with a surface area of well over 200m2.

Writing in the International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management, the researchers suggest that growing papyrus sedge in abundance — and it has a prodigious growth rate — would provide a cheap and ecologically sound way to reduce the amount of untreated effluent reaching the great African lake.

Another innovation from Makerere University is the use of papyrus in making affordable sanitary pads. Research in Uganda has shown that in urban poor areas about 90 per cent of women and girls cannot afford off-the-shelf sanitary products and instead improvise with pieces of cloth or paper. For fear of soiling themselves, many schoolgirls stay at home during menstruation, leading to poor academic performance.

The papyrus pads can be produced for less than a third of the price of imported branded pads. In Uganda alone, about eight million women and girls could take advantage of this African invention.

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