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5 Surprising Facts About Cactus Sustainability

Did you know that the prickly pear cactus (also known as nopal or opuntia) is considered to be one of the most sustainable foods and is considered to be a biofuel of the future? This was recently confirmed in an extensive 2021 study done at the University of Nevada. Here’s what you need to know about cactus sustainability – the power of the Opuntia cactus to help us meet our needs in a rapidly changing world without compromising the ability of next generations to meet their own. ❤️ 🌎

Photo by Andrew Coop on Unsplash

Are Cacti Sustainable?

If something is ecologically sustainable, it means that it helps to maintain the balance in the Earth’s environmental systems and prevents the natural resources from being consumed or used by humans at a rate when they cannot replenish themselves. Here’s how the prickly pear cactus is leading the sustainability movement:

  1. Cactus Biodiversity: Home of the Cochineal

  2. Cactus Leather: Vegan Leather Is Here

  3. Cactus as Biofuel: The Green Gold

  4. Cactus Bioplastics: The Solution to Plastic Waste?

  5. Cactus as a Superfood: Sustainable Food of the Future

 

1. Cactus Biodiversity: Home of the Cochineal

Spoiler alert: If you’re in the OMGbugs! club, tread lightly. 

The cochineal is a tiny, scaly insect which grows on the prickly pear cactus leaf pads, where it feeds on plant nutrients and moisture. The cochineal insect is the natural enemy of the Opuntia and is often used intentionally to control its growth. But that’s not the only reason why cochineals and prickly pears are cultivated together – cochineals are harvested for dye making.

These insects contain carminic acid (also known as carmine, cochineal, Natural Red 4 or E120), which has been used as a natural dye for centuries – the North and Central America’s Aztec and Maya used it to dye garments as early as in the 2nd century BC. While originally carminic acid is the cochineal’s natural defense against predators, it impairs a red/scarlet color, which is used to color fabrics, cosmetics and food

Cochineal is used as a natural dye to color tapestries, carpets, and garments, but is also found in many hair and skin products, such as blushes, lipsticks, and face powders. In the pharmaceutical industry, the cochineal-insect derived dye is used in the production of various ointments and pills. When it comes to food, carmine is used to color meat, dairy products, beverages and sweets (sausages, meat, cheddar cheese, alcoholic drinks, jams, juice beverages, sauces, cookies and many others). Cochineal insects are widely used, being a perfect example of cactus sustainability.

2. Cactus Leather: Vegan Leather Is Here

Cactus sustainability is also perfectly reflected in the fact that cactus is rapidly becoming one of the best and most durable replacements for animal leather and is generally considered to be the material of the future. 

As more and more people turn to the plant-based lifestyle and become aware of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, finding sustainable options to replace leather has been a priority for many brands and consumers. The statistics are alarming – despite the awareness of the negative effect the fashion industry has on the environment, we produce 80 billion new items of clothing per year (which is a 400% increase compared to 2000). Every year, we are responsible for 92 million tons of clothing waste, only a small portion of which gets recycled or reused. 

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after fuel, and leather production is the most destructive. To understand this, we need to consider the entire process which yields leather usable in fashion. 

This vicious circle starts with the clearing of the land for farming (20% of the Amazon has already been destroyed and cleared for livestock farming) and using huge quantities  of water to raise the livestock. 1 billion animals are killed every year for leather production, and not just cows (where leather is considered a by-product of meat). Think millions of horses, kangaroos and snakes which never reach the end of their natural lifespan and are kept in horrible conditions. 

But the production of leather isn’t harmful only to the animals. It hurts people too. The leather industry is extremely harmful to the planet and local communities because of the toxic chemicals used in the leather tanning process. The notorious suburb of Kanpur, India has more than 400 tanneries, where leather undergoes processing and coloring – the process which involves the release of toxic chemicals including chromium, lead, arsenic, cobalt, copper, iron and many others, contaminating the Ganges river and the surrounding soil. According to Peta, the risk of cancer among tannery workers is 20-50% higher than usual.

It’s evident that we need a more sustainable approach before it’s too late. And two Mexican innovators and entrepreneurs seem to have found the solution in their locally-thriving prickly pear cactus

Cactus leather is a prickly pear based biomaterial that’s organic, cruelty-free, vegan and free of toxic chemicals and plastic. It happens to be the best available leather replacement in terms of duration and softness.

The material was introduced only in 2019 by Desserto and it’s made from the leaves of the nopal cactus. When the cactus is fully grown (which takes a maximum of 3 months), the most mature leaves are removed without destroying the stem of the cactus, allowing it to keep growing. The cactus is then processed to make organic bio resin. Cactus leather is available in a few thickness options, and can be used for shoes, clothing or accessories. The color options have expanded from basic green, black and white to include shades of red, green, blue and brown.

Desserto Cactus Leather

Thanks to the fact that cactus require very little water to survive/thrive, it is one of the most resilient plants on the planet. It is not treated with any pesticides and that its various parts can be used for different purposes, prickly pears have all the reason to be considered the most sustainable plant of the future and the best alternative to leather.

It is predicted that the vegan leather industry will grow exponentially to reach $89.6 billion by 2025. The only way to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry and increase sustainability and transparency is to rely on innovation and plant-based materials. We can’t wait to see cactus leather more in the future. You can check out some of the brands leading the cactus sustainability movement here.

3. Cactus as Biofuel: The Green Gold

Can cactus be used as fuel? Nopal cactus can be used as a scalable alternative to fossil fuels. A Mexican company, Nopalimex, is using the pulp of the prickly pear cactus mixed with manure to produce biofuel as the green source of energy. Mexico’s “green gold” is now being harnessed to power the municipal agricultural machinery, as well as the city’s police and ambulance vehicles. 

The process of producing nopal bio gas is almost fully sustainable since the prickly pear cactus is readily available, can be replanted easily and the waste can be used to further fertilize crops. With the cost of just 12 pesos ($0.65) per liter, the future of the prickly pear biofuel is definitely bright. 

4. Cactus Bioplastics: The Solution to Plastic Waste?

With climate change topping the agenda in almost all countries, governments around the world are looking to prohibit or reduce single-use plastic products. Meanwhile, researchers across the globe are increasingly looking into environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastics. 

Mexico-based Sandra Pascoe from the University of the Valley of Atemajac is one of them. She’s currently leading the world’s cactus bioplastic research – an alternative to plastic which is non-toxic to humans and animals and which inflicts zero harm to the planet

In her laboratory, Sandra managed to create degradable plastic material from the sugars, organic acid and pectins from the nopal juice of the cactus. Once cactus leaves are peeled and juiced, they are mixed with natural waxes, proteins and glycerol, and then placed on a hot plate to dry. The outcome is a plastic-like material which can degrade in a few days when left in nature. If put in a backyard composter, cactus bioplastics will degrade in a few months. This is amazing when compared with regular plastics, which needs 20-500 years to decompose

This is another example of cactus sustainability – this breakthrough in bioplastics might soon replace corn-based bioplastic products. Unlike corn, cactus needs no fertilization and irrigation. This helps reduce the impact of polluting chemicals on soil and saves precious drinking water.

Right now, cactus plastics can be used to make shopping bags, toys, jewelry and cling film. While continuing to develop and test the product, Sandra’s team hopes to speed up the process and find partners who would bring bioplastics production from the laboratory to the market.

Cactus as a Superfood: Sustainable Food of the Future

According to global climate change predictions, droughts are expected to increase, both in intensity and duration, which will result in higher temperature overall and less available water. This means that some of the traditional crops like corn, soy or rice may fail in more arid areas, especially so because they require irrigation and water could be sparse.

Thanks to its resilience, high tolerance to heat and low water use, cactus might become a staple food of the future, replacing corn or soy. The desert plant can grow practically anywhere and requires almost no water to thrive. This, according to scientists and the UN, could be the crop that could provide hunger relief in some of the most arid areas of the world like Madagascar or Ethiopia, both of which are experiencing extreme multi-year droughts and famine. 

As a climate-resilient crop, prickly pear is also one of the best foods for the environment – cactus paddles can store 180 tons of water per hectare, and in degraded soil, planting prickly pear will help other plants grow. A recent Nevada study found that the prickly pear cactus had the highest fruit production while consuming 80% less water than most of the traditional crops. 

Both the pads and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus are edible and contain powerful antioxidants which can improve overall health, act as immune boosters, boost skin health and muscle recovery.

Prickly pear cactus is already a well-established ingredient in Mexican and Latin American cuisine, where it is eaten both fresh (cactus salad, anyone?) and cooked. Keto dieters will love the fact that the paddles of the cactus can be dried and made into a powder to make tortillas. The magenta-colored prickly pear fruit is typically used to make jams, spreads and dressings, cocktails or functional drinks like cactus water

Cactus Sustainability: Conclusion

Paolo Inglese, a professor at the Department of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Palermo in Sicily, once stated “It’s impossible to describe how many things you can get out of this plant [cactus]… I really believe it’s a miracle crop”.

The biggest benefit of the nopal cactus is that it’s so versatile – after the fruit and pads are harvested for food, the remaining pads can be used to create leather, biofuel, bioplastics. The remaining biomass can serve as a carbon sink and as fodder for livestock. A full cactus circle. 

At Pricklee, we squeeze the organically-sourced prickly pear fruit and make the best cactus water on Earth. You can try it in three delicious tastes – pure prickly pear, strawberry hibiscus and mango ginger!