Mexico’s cactus offers alternative to plastics

The pulp of the prickly pear is mixed with additives to produce sheets that can be used for packaging.

August 07, 2019 10:01 pm | Updated 10:32 pm IST - Guadalajara

A worker collects white nopal in Zapopan, Jalisco state, Mexico, August 1, 2019.

A worker collects white nopal in Zapopan, Jalisco state, Mexico, August 1, 2019.

Mexico’s prickly pear cactus, which is emblazoned on the country’s flag, could soon play a new and innovative role in the production of biodegradable plastics.

A packaging material that is made from the plant has been developed by a Mexican researcher and is offering a promising solution to one of the world’s biggest pollution conundrums.

“The pulp is strained to obtain a juice that I then use,” said Sandra Pascoe, who developed the product and works at the Atemajac Valley University in the western city of Guadalajara.

That substance is then mixed with non-toxic additives and stretched to produce sheets that are coloured with pigments and folded to form different types of packaging.

“What we’re doing is trying to concentrate on objects that don’t have a long life,” she said, particularly “single-use” packaging.

Ms. Pascoe is still conducting tests, but hopes to patent her product later this year and look for partners in early 2020, with an eye towards large scale production.

The cacti Ms. Pascoe uses for her experiments come from San Esteban, a small town on the outskirts of Guadalajara, where they grow by the hundreds.

San Esteban is located in Jalisco state where, starting next year, single-use non-recyclable plastic bags, straws and other disposable items will be banned.

Pascoe says her new material would be no more than a “drop in the ocean” in the battle to preserve the environment.

Given the rampant production of industrial plastics and the time it takes to make her material, there would need to be “other recycling strategies” to make any concrete difference, she said.

In March, UN member states committed to “significantly reduce” single-use plastics over the next decade, although green groups warned that goal fell short of tackling the Earth’s pollution crisis.

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