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Mexican researchers point to potential of natural fiber feedstocks

By: Stephen Downer

December 2, 2013

QUERETARO, MEXICO — Mexico has a host of natural fibers that could be used in the manufacture of biodegradable polymers, according to studies conducted at a leading research center in the country.

The National Polytechnical Institute's Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) in Querétaro used starch taken from native corn and sugarcane fiber to make plates, using glycerol as a plastifying agent.

In a paper describing the research, the team, led by Fernando Martínez Bustos, a chemical engineer, writes that Mexico has available to it at least 77 million tons of natural fibers found in agricultural residues, 50 percent of them corn, followed by wheat, sorghum and sugar cane, from which starch can be extracted.

"Other potential sources of fibers, such as sisal, lechugillas, palm trees, blue tequila, mezcal and pulque agave plants, forest residues and so on are also available," the four-man research team points out.

In an interview via email, Martínez Bustos told Plastics News the team has made "significant advances" in the field of organic or natural polymers.

Asked about the level of interest within the Mexican plastics industry in commercializing such polymers, Martínez Bustos said some companies are interested because of the high cost of importing materials whose biodegradability is often not guaranteed.

But "unfortunately, the funds for research in this area are very limited, probably because of a lack of consciousness of the importance of the development of these biodegradable materials."

A "great help" towards making the project commercially viable would be if the government passed laws making the use of biodegradable materials obligatory, he said. "It's a question of [having] the proper incentives, some economic, some social and some legal."

And he added progress could also be made if Mexican or international industry were interested enough to "do the life cycle analysis and industrial-level testing that [would] demonstrate the economic benefits" of organic polymers.

According to Martínez Bustos and his team, Mexico produces 32 million tons of urban garbage a year, 4 percent (1.28 million tons) of which is plastic. Only about 9.43 percent of the plastic waste is recycled, they say.