We rely on plastics for nearly everything. From the decor in our homes to the machines we use at work (many of which might be made using the reaction injection molding process of combining two liquid components in a mold), this material is ubiquitous in our world. But unfortunately, it’s also doing a lot of damage to the planet we call home. As a result, there’s a need for more sustainable alternatives — particularly biodegradable ones, as plastics can sit in landfills for a thousand years before ever breaking down. Now, a group of researchers from the University of Valle de Atemajac in Zapopan, Mexico think they’ve found the answer: the prickly pear cactus, which is the very species featured so prominently on the country’s flag.
Global plastic production grew from 225 million tons to 311 million tons between 2004 and 2014. While this is excellent news for the plastics industry, it’s not a positive development for the environment. Data shows that 8 million metric tons of plastics end up in our oceans every year — and that’s in addition to the 150 million metric tons that are already affecting our marine life. It impacts humans, as well, seeing as the plastic in our waterways and in our landfills makes its way into our food supply. In fact, we ingest more than 50,000 pieces of microplastic each year.
That’s a startling statistic for many, but there may be hope. According to lead researcher Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, Mexico’s popular prickly pear cactus could hold the key to creating an eco-friendly plastic that safely and quickly breaks down. Ortiz explained in a statement that the cactus pulp is strained into a juice, which is then combined with natural, non-toxic additives and stretched into sheets. The sheets could then be colored with pigments and used to create packaging. If the product ends up in a landfill or on the ground, it would dissolve in a month; if it comes into contact with water, it would take only a few days to break down completely. And if animals or humans happen to ingest it, there would be no negative health effects.
Although Ortiz admits her invention would not be the answer to all environmental issues, she hopes that it could potentially replace all other kinds of single use plastics being used. Tests are still being conducted and the process is currently restricted to the laboratory, but Ortiz hopes to have her patent request join the other 500,000 applications that will be received by the USPTO this year. She plans to look for development partners in early 2020 in order to pursue large scale production in an industrial facility.
Already, a number of companies have expressed their interest in supporting the venture, which means it may not be too long before we see this plant-based plastic on the market. But for now, you might want to keep reducing your single use plastic use and find additional ways to become more sustainable in your everyday life.