The Mexicana Who Created Biodegradable Plastic Out of Cactus Juice is Our Favorite Person

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz BELatina

Rather than complaining about the way paper straws disintegrate in her venti iced coffee, scientist Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a researcher in UNIVA (the Silicon Valley of México), decided to do something about it. 

With over 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced each year worldwide and only 9% of it being recycled, Pascoe Ortiz’s invention is urgently needed. 6.3 billion tons of plastic, mostly in the form of single-use products, such as bags, cutlery, and the insidious straws, is discarded yearly. If these figures weren’t staggering enough, researchers predict that by the year 2050, the ever-growing rate of plastic production will increase to reach 12 billion tons annually, or 35,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building. 

The more plastic products we make, the more plastic ends up in landfills and in our oceans. Currently, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of it infests our waters, polluting our potable water supplies and decimating our marine life. The noxious effects of all of this waste inspired Pascoe Ortiz to experiment with natural ingredients to derive a product that behaves like plastic, even providing single-use applications, without the harmful and toxic effects on the environment. 

El nopal, a type of cactus native to México that includes over 300 varieties and makes a delicious filling for veggie tacos, evidently also makes a promising substitute for plastic. Pascoe Ortiz has developed a formula, which begins with a living cactus that is stripped of a few leaves and left alive to rapidly regenerate those missing limbs. This property makes the raw material plentiful and easily renewable, unlike other plant sources that require regrowth from seed to adulthood once they are utilized. 

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz BELatina
Mexican scientist Sandra Pascoe Ortiz developed a biodegradable plastic made with the juice of Nopal (Opuntia cacti). (Ulises Ruiz, AFP)

Pascoe Ortiz found that taking three nopal leaves, peeling them, juicing them in a conventional machine (like the one you might employ for your favorite green juice), chilling the juice, then adding a special formula of non-toxic, renewable, and biodegradable material, producing around one square meter of plastic-like material. Her proprietary mixture yields a highly malleable material that can be colored, rolled out to the desired thickness, and allowed to dry into whatever the desired shape. The finished product has the capacity of being thin and flexible or achieving greater firmness, lending itself to a number of applications, from bags to packaging materials. 

Renewable and non-toxic, perhaps the best part about Pascoe Ortiz’s formula is that it takes only one month to biodegrade if it ends up in a landfill, a vast improvement over the 400 years that the average piece of conventional plastic takes to disintegrate. Even those products that find themselves in our waterways are unlikely to harm marine life. A non-toxic, edible nopal-based straw will sooner become lunch for a turtle than end up wedged in its nose. Though humans might not find the material’s taste very appetizing, Pascoe Ortiz’s “plastic” is completely benign to our systems, making it a promising replacement for BPA-free plastic in products like tableware and baby food storage. 

Seeking to optimize her process further, Pascoe Ortiz is still researching the best variety of nopal for this application and an ideal way to start making the material widely available. The process, which currently takes around ten days to complete, would likely be sped up by an industrialized process, which Pascoe Ortiz is working on developing. In the meantime, we can help by remembering our reusable bags when shopping and finding various ways to eliminate our dependence on single-use plastic, while this heroe méxicana works on making us harmless straws that won’t succumb to our morning smoothie.