The future of straws may be a cactus.

Biodegradable straws made from nopal and mango
The UNAM Crest

The National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM as it is commonly known, is once again at the forefront of innovation into addressing the worldwide problem of pollution caused by single use plastics. Plastic straws (or popotes) are a major source of plastic pollution with 2017 figures estimating that 500 million straws are used in the USA alone on a daily basis (1)(2) and are in the top 10 list of items that are found as pollution in the ocean (3).

Microplastics (glowing bright green) ingested by a water flea that’s 3mm long (0.1 inches)(5)
Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Straws, along with plastic bags, are items that although they breakdown never fully biodegrade and are culprits in adding to the ever growing threat of microplastic pollution. The ongoing potential of a threat to human health is hard to determine as humans don’t generally eat plastic knowingly and it would be unethical to perform the types of experiments required to obtain such information. It is however known that microplastics can be microscopic in size and the chemicals involved in plastic production and its subsequent breakdown, PCB’s and BPA (4), are known to have negative effects on human health.  

Itzel Paniagua and Alondra Montserrat López López

Two students from UNAM have come up with a potential substitute to plastic straws. One that is both environmentally friendly and doesn’t come with the negative health effects that are related to plastics. Itzel Paniagua and Alondra Montserrat López López won first place in the XXVII Concurso Universitario Feria de las Ciencias, la Tecnología y la Innovación, en la modalidad Diseño Innovador (6) for their design of an ecologically friendly straw made from mango and nopal extracts. The straws have a hardness similar to plastic and biodegrade within four to six months (and they also look kind of yummy). These straws are produced from renewable resources and with a little further backing, Itzel and Alondra are hoping UNAM will support this research, these straws may soon be seen in your favourite Bubble tea.

  1. This figure is debatable.
  2. Australians use an estimated 10 million straws per day
  4. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bisphenol A
  6. University Competition Science, Technology and Innovation Fair, in the Innovative Design category

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