Reportage by Paula Pröve, cover illustration Susanne Gold It started as a project for the university, the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. The task: integrate a natural fibre into any material. That was the beginning of agave bioplastic, developed by 22-year-old product design student Fernanda Odorica Bechelany from Mexico City. In the meantime, she has already won the “Second Life of Things in Design” award from Cumulus Green and is working together with a Start UP to perfect her product.
The manufacturing process
Fernanda Odorica makes the biodegradable plastic film using a very simple process. She heats maize starch and then adds the agave fibres. The fibres serve as a flexible binding component. Then she spreads the mass out flat: A thin film two metres wide and two metres long is produced. With this dimension, it is easy to experiment. The plastic, which is still hot and liquid, is then laid out to dry. When dry, the film is still very flexible and can be made into a plastic bag, among other things. To break down the plastic, it is placed in the soil. Depending on the thickness of the material, it takes several months to degrade itself and serve as fertiliser for the soil.
Working with regional waste products
Fernanda Odorica is very proud to be from Mexico. She grew up there and, despite graduating from a German school, decided to stay and study in Mexico City. For her, it is important to stay close to her family and live in her regional culture. She also approached her project with regionality in mind. She wanted to use a material that is often found in Mexico but is no longer good for use. After some research, she came across agave fibre. Agave is used in Mexico to make tequila. Mexicans make agave liquor from the core of the plant. Everything else is disposed of. For one litre of tequila, a little over three tonnes of fibres are produced. At about 96 million litres per year, that’s about 289 millions of tonnes of bio-waste. According to the student, some of these fibres are sold at the weekly market as fertiliser for the farmers. Nevertheless, a lot remains. That’s exactly where Fernanda comes in. Her biodegradable plastic is easy to make from local materials and accessible to everyone. Her idea is that every country and region should look at the products and waste that is produced regionally and has the potential for more sustainability. The advantage: there would be less region-specific waste. And the processing industry would not have unnecessary and environmentally harmful transport costs due to the regionality of the product.
Agave fibres are more tear-resistant than other organic fibres
In the production of biodegradable plastic alternatives, the binding component is crucial. For example, there are many plastic alternatives made from mango or orange fibres. Just like Fernanda’s agave plastic, these can be placed in the soil and used as fertiliser through the degradation process, as the student explains. As a rule, however, these alternatives are not as tear-resistant and durable as desired. That is the crucial difference to agave plastic. The surface is rougher than “normal” plastic, but otherwise feels the same. Yet it is not immediately identifiable as plastic. “It doesn’t carry the chemical bleach and odours,” Fernanda explains. So it appears to be a natural product. Despite its elasticity, it is tear-resistant and durable. This criterion was also important to the inventor of the bioplastic. And as a designer, the appearance of the product is also close to her heart. The product should be visually appealing so that people have an incentive to buy it also because of its appearance.
Into the future with agave fibres
Fernanda could imagine selling her product to the fashion industry at some point in the future. For now, she is looking ahead to the Cumulus Green awards ceremony in Milan this summer. Until then, her goal is to continue working on her product with the start-up “Biointellectus” and to make her product more durable. Biointellectus is a company that was also founded by students from her university. Unlike Fernanda, they want to focus on producing a bioplastic without any fibres as a binding component. Subsequently, she wants to make herself known on the regional market first. Where, she does not know exactly yet. Perhaps she could offer the material as an alternative packaging and sell it to supermarkets. Fernanda’s two biggest goals are to develop the product further so that the plastic with agave fibres can replace the material polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in some products. PVC is a plastic that is now found just about everywhere. From flooring to children’s toys to packaging adhesive film. It is harmful because it does not degrade on its own and is therefore often burned. The combustion process then produces corrosive hydrogen chloride vapours, which in turn have to be filtered at great expense. Fernanda’s product as a substitute would not only be better for the environment, but also for people’s health. Fernanda’s second goal is a bag made from her agave film. This is where the creative designer in her comes out. She wants to experiment with natural colours to make the bag not only functionally attractive but also beautiful on the outside.
Mexico’s sustainability is not as sustainable as it seems
At the beginning of 2020, Mexico decided to ban all single-use products made of non-recyclable plastic. A great step forward. But unfortunately not in Fernanda’s opinion. The newly used materials are still harmful and need special machines to be composted and broken down. The awareness of the population has still not changed on the issue of disposable products. Things are used once and then disposed of. These products, whether they are bags or other packaging materials, are not seen as a long-term usable product because of their prices. People buy them new, only to throw them away again. This has to change. “You have to give plastic the value it has. It’s harmful and it’s not going away,” is the student’s statement. She wants to give people a product that lasts a long time and is not thrown away so carelessly. Follow the inventor of agave plastic, Fernanda Odorica Bechelany, on Instagram!