Agave straws : An Alternative to Plastic

Photo : Jose Cuervo

In December 2019 Jose Cuervo, producers of the archetypal Mexican drink Tequila (1) since the late 1700’s, launched the Agave Project. This initiative is part of a general worldwide push seeking renewable and environmentally friendly solutions to issues of human impact on the Earth. The Agave Project is one of many community based projects initiated by Jose Cuervo over the last 21 years. They are the largest producer of agave by-product (2) globally and have been actively involved with the local community through the foundation in areas such as education and healthcare. They have spent years researching the agave waste fibre known as bagasse that is left over from tequila production as an alternative to plastic, bricks for housing and fuel and have provided agave fibre to both local businesses and businesses en el otro lado (3) for products as diverse as paper manufacture, beauty products, surfboard making, guitar making and for research into sustainable agave based car parts.

  1. NOM 1104 and 1122
  2. Bagasse – the fibrous residue of the agave pina after the juice has been extracted. Agave bagasse is an effective biofuel. In the far north of Queensland Australia an electricity generating power plant that operates by burning the bagasse produced by crushing sugarcane is importing the blue agave. Sugarcane bagasse is a seasonal product and is only available for part of the year. This leaves the power plant idle for most of the year. The Atherton tablelands have an environment similar to that of the lands of tequila in Jalisco and is proving to be an ideal environment to grow the maguey. The maguey will be used to produced bagasse (without first using it to make tequila, they had to promise this to the Mexicans before Mexico would take their requests to export the plant) and be an alternative fuel source for the power plant during its formerly idle months.
  3. The “other side”. A Mexican slang term for the United States of America
Agave bagasse.
Photo: Jose Cuervo

Jose Cuervo touts itself as the largest manufacturer of tequila in the world and as such the company is intimately tied to the maguey. The Agave Project is a way for them to honour their roots and is aimed at continuing Cuervo’s longstanding commitment to the land and people of Tequila and Mexico. The latest brainstorm to arise out of the Agave Project is the creation of a bio-straw produced from upcycled agave bagasse which is to be used as an alternative to the polar bear destroying scourge that is the plastic straw.

Jose Cuervo is working alongside two Mexican companies, Biosolutions and Penka, to produce an alternative option to both plastic and paper straws. Using a bio-based composite (1) of cellulose rich agave bagasse fibre they have created the first biodegradable agave based drinking straw in the world (2). This agave based composite has been FDA approved and has been lab-tested in accordance with several internationally recognized guidelines and standards to show that the straws are recyclable and biodegradable in landfills, initiating their biodegradation process after 12 months and taking between 12-60 months to completely biodegrade according to the exact landfill conditions. These numbers differ in various articles referring to the straws though. One states that the straws “start to biodegrade within six weeks and are fully biodegradable within six months” and that they decompose “up to 200 times faster than regular plastic”. Another states that “they can be consumed by microorganisms to fully biodegrade within 1 to 5 years in landfill conditions” (3) which, apart from the mention of the action of microorganisms, concurs with the 12-60 months. I am curious however about straws that are just thrown on the ground and not subjected to “landfill conditions” and the subsequent action of microorganisms that that entails. I can imagine they wouldn’t last long in the ocean though.

  1. PolyAgave PPT4
  2. Penka also uses this fibre to produce biodegradeable cutlery, cups, containers and other barware and houseware products.
  3. Either way you look at it plastic straws are said to take between 100 and 500 years to biodegrade or that they may not actually biodegrade at all but simply breakdown into smaller and smaller particles until they become a microscopic particle called a microplastic that can even be so small that it can be consumed by creatures that are themselves microscopic and enter the human food chain at its very bottom.
Microplastics (glowing bright green) ingested by a water flea that’s 3mm long (0.1 inches)(5)
Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Aside from being reusable and recyclable the straws themselves have several advantages over using both plastic and paper straws. The agave fibre is more durable than paper and can be used in hot or cold liquids. Unlike paper straws they will not get soggy or breakdown or dissolve in your drink. They are also organic, and BPA (1) and gluten free. Sustainability however isn’t just about biodegradability. It’s also about the life of the agave itself and how much energy and resources are needed to create the biomaterial in the first place. The use of the agave fibres is a good way to make use of what would normally be a waste product but simply by using the maguey it is a definite improvement on using other plant based sources, such as corn, as the natural resources required for its growth (2) is very low when compared to other crops.

  1. BPA stands for bisphenol A. It is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s. Some research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers that are made with BPA. There are conflicting opinions as to the potential dangers to health caused by exposure to BPA but it is considered to be an endocrine disruptor that may have a wide range of negative effects on the human organism.
  2. Such as water, fertiliser and pesticides
Photo : Penka

The company Penka, a clever take on the word “penca” which is the name of the strappy “leaf” of the maguey, also notes the following environmental benefits (for every ton of products manufactured with their bio-fibre plastics)

  • A decrease in the consumption of and reliance on petroleum polymers and the generation of a 100% recyclable material
  • Resource optimisation by the reuse (instead of disposal of) of more than 3000kg of agave biomass waste and agro-industrial by-products
  • A reduction of 450kg of CO2 emissions and the subsequent reduction of carbon footprint
  • The reduction of the consumption of almost 150 litres of oil
Photo : el Restaurante (Trade magazine)

In 2020 Jose Cuervo plans to roll out millions of these agave straws in bars and restaurants across the US and Mexico in a drive to reduce the consumption of plastic straws and attempt to help clean up the environment one popote at a time.

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