The Spiny Source Of Biodegradable Plastic
Plastic pollution is a major issue that is being talked about more than ever, especially after the release of Blue Planet II. With increasing pressure on landfill sites and the use of non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, many countries have decided to ban single-use plastics. Researchers have also been trying to find more environmentally friendly solutions and luckily two Mexican universities have managed to discover one.
Prickly pears are cacti found in the Mexican landscape, mentioned in the Disney Jungle Book song "The Bare Necessities" and are, unbeknownst to many, used in cooking as a vegetable (Baloo would be ecstatic!). But the University of Valle de Atemajac and University of Guadalajara have found another use, by converting its juice into biodegradable plastic.
The scientists tested how biodegradable this new plastic was and found that it breaks down after two to three months when it is placed on a soil surface. Even better than that, when it gets submerged in water, it disintegrates in a few days. It is also edible and not toxic to the environment, as well as being a renewable resource. When leaves are harvested from the prickly pear, the leaves will grow back over time. The properties of the cactus are key for the production of this biodegradable plastic. It has a natural polymer made of sugars and gums, which can be improved by combining other substances to give it the same properties as some petroleum-derived plastics. The prickly pear juice is extracted, natural additives are mixed, and the liquid is poured onto a flat surface to dry. After this process, the dried juice resembles a durable and flexible plastic material. Prototypes usually take around 10 days to make in the lab.
This could massively help the plastics crisis we have today. The hardest step is to find an alternative for consumers and now we have a possible candidate! More importantly, this will reduce the amount of unrecycled plastic that ends up in landfill or the ocean. The researchers have been in contact with a company that is interested in industrialising the biodegradable product, so hopefully we will see it in our supermarkets soon.
Research Journal - Pascoe-Ortiz, S., Rodríguez-Macías, R., Robledo-Ortiz, J.R., Salcedo-Pérez, E., Zamora-Natera, J.F., Rabelero-Velasco, M. and Vargas-Radillo, J.J. (2019) Identification of important properties present in juice of Opuntia megacantha Salm-Dyck for the production of biopolymers, TIP Revista Especializada en Ciencias Químico-Biológicas, 22(1): 1-10.