Blue Agave (Weber Tequilana) is not only known for its use in the production of the natural sweetener agave syrup and tequila, Mexico’s national alcoholic beverage. It is also a crop with potential for other economically and environmentally sustainable applications, including textile, fibres, animal feed, paper and biofuel.
This cactus-like plant, a member of the Amaryllidaceae group, thrives in the semi-arid regions of the Jalisco state. The hard structural fibres in the leaves have served for woven applications like ropeand twine since Aztec times.
“There are plenty of consumer goods with agave fibre already in the market at small artisan scale that represent an important source of income to the communities in Jalisco: accessories for apparel and home fashions such as hats, belts, handbags, mattress fillers, carpets, placemats, and baskets,” says Gunnar Hellmund of Sol y Agave de Arandas, a Mexican research and pioneer firm in the recycling industry.
With a “cradle to cradle” concept, Sol y Agave takes the “bagazo,” the waste of the tequila processing plants, as valuable material to develop other products. Last year, research at Sol y Agave showed remarkable advances in the development of textile fibres from Blue Agave. “We are almost ready to offer a better yarn suitable for the apparel industry, at competitive prices,” says Hellmund. Agave fibres are coarse and rigid. The idea is to spin them along with cotton, to achieve a soft fabric with around 10-15 per cent agave.
“Although cotton is a natural fibre that results directly from the plant’s own ability to process it without intermediate or external processing steps, current intense farming practices do not make it really sustainable,” says Hellmund.
Developing an agave fibre that could save at least 10 per cent of the cotton required for a fabric while adding increased performance would be a true contribution to sustainability. Agave fibres are resistant and even though they absorb water, they release it faster than cotton and wool. “We will launch a cotton/agave fibre below the price of cotton with great performance and truly sustainable,” says Hellmund. The fibre is being tested by top yarn producers in Mexico and Spain.
Hellmund has found interest from large industries for this and other agave fibre applications at industrial level. Iidea, the pioneer producer of agave syrup, is among them. “We are excited for new developments and applications beyond tequila and natural sweeteners, that will allow our industry to minimize or reuse this waste in a sustainable way,” says Fabrizio Cetto of Iidea.
Another application for the agave fibre is its combination with polyethylene. Plastic bags are also an industrial product coming from Arandas, where Sol y Agave is located. “We are developing a pellet that will accelerate the degradability of the plastic bag.” They are working on the binding agent. “If we can reduce the use of polyethylene at least by 15 to 20 per cent and work for its faster degradability, we are making progress,” he says. The current cost of polyethylene is $1.18 U.S. per master batch, while one with the new pellets with agave fibre will be below $0.50. Sol y Agave has also developed prototypes of chairs, tables and other products made of polypropylene with agave fibre.
Sol y Agave envisions that other types of agave plants may be introduced in other arid areas not suitable for agriculture, not only in Mexico but in Africa and elsewhere. This way, they would not interfere with the tequila production that has obtained Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) as an exclusive product from Mexico, derived only from Blue Agave (Weber Tequilana).
Enjoying pancakes with organic-certified agave syrup or a Margarita while sitting on a chair made with agave fibre, wearing clothes and accessories from the same type of plant that will not impact other crops that feed the world or the valuable land still available for farming? Not bad for a plant that lives up to 70 years, needs little water and external inputs. Agave continues helping the world re-think how to develop more responsibly.