A researcher in Mexico is using cactus leaves to make plastic that is biodegradable, sustainable, and edible.
University of the Valley of Atemajac engineer Sandra Pascoe Ortiz recently appeared in a segment called People Fixing the World on BBC News.
“My idea is to produce a plastic from natural ingredients and substitute it for some of the plastics we use today,” Ortiz said to the BBC. She believes her non-toxic material could replace single-use plastic products like cutlery and shopping bags.
Ortiz develops the material by cutting the leaves off of cacti, peeling them, and juicing them. The cactus juice is then refrigerated. Later, she adds a non-toxic formula to the liquid, laminates it, and lets it dry. The process takes around 10 days, however, Ortiz believes it can be completed more quickly with industrial processes.
“We can obtain different colours, shapes, thicknesses. We can make plastics that are very smooth or very flexible and we can make others that are more rigid,” she said.
The cactus plastic takes one month to biodegrade in soil and a couple of days to break down in water. Other plastic items can take hundreds of years to biodegrade; on average, plastic bottles take at least 450 years to decompose and plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years.
A lot of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Forty percent of the world’s ocean surfaces are made up of plastic and it’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.
Thousands of seabirds, seals, whales, sea turtles, dolphins, and fish die every year after mistakenly consuming plastic.
Ortiz’s plastic can be safely eaten (although it’s not designed to taste good). “All the materials we use can be ingested both by humans or animals, and they wouldn’t cause any harm,” Ortiz explained.
The cactus plastic is made from entirely renewable resources. Even after having a leaf removed, the plant stays alive and will continue to produce leaves. The BBC explained that Ortiz is researching the approximately 300 species of nopal cactus in Mexico to see which carry the most useful properties.
A company based in Morelia, Mexico, uses agro-industrial waste like avocado pits to make its biodegradable plastic. BIOFASE creates cutlery and straws made up of 70 percent biomass content. The items biodegrade after 240 days of being buried in the ground or exposed to the elements.