Bioplastic made from cactus juice

Sandra Pascoe, researcher at the University of the Valley of Atemajac in Mexico, developed a biodegradable plastic made from the juice of the edible nopal cactus.

The material is made out of the sugars as well as pectin and organic acids found in the juice of the plant, which give it a very viscous consistency. The leaves of the cactus are peeled and put in a juicer. After that, the juice is mixed with glycerol, natural waxes, proteins and colourants. When the material is dried on a hot plate, it turns into a sheet of plastic-like material.

The material biodegrades when left in nature; it breaks down in water within a few days and also biodegrades in a backyard composter within a few months. It is also non-toxic when ingested for both humans and animals.

The cactus plastic has several advantages over other biobased plastics made from plant sugar. Corn, which is often used to make bioplastic, needs fertiliser and lots of water to grow. Cacti, on the other hand, live in harsh environments with little to no need for care. In addition, since only the leaves are removed, the plant remains alive to grow new ones.

The nopal cactus is a plant endemic in Mexico. There are about 300 species of this cactus and Pascoe is testing which ones have the best properties.

The bioplastic can be made in various colours, thicknesses and degrees of flexibility. The material could serve as an alternative to single use fossil based plastic, like plastic bags. The process currently takes ten days from start to finish, but Pascoe thinks that it can be sped up with industrial processes.

The researcher is working with a company that is interested in bringing the cactus plastic to the market.