• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
2m 56s

Environmentally-friendly bioplastic created from shrimp shells

By Michael Roppolo / CBS News 8:39 AM May 8, 2014

Over 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually, and only about 3 percent of it gets recycled. The rest is simply trashed, taking centuries to degrade, or left adrift in the ocean. An estimated 24,000 tons of plastics are ingested by fish in the North Pacific alone each year.

Bioplastics — a so-called “green” alternative to regular plastic — contain some form of plant-based materials, but often do not degrade fully in landfills. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering may have solved that problem, with a new bioplastic made from shrimp shells that they say is fully degradable.

Made from chitosan, a form of chitin — the main ingredient found in the shells of crustaceans, insects and the wings of butterflies — it is one of the most abundant organic materials on Earth. The majority of the world’s available chitin comes from discarded shrimp shells, which are also sometimes used in fertilizers, cosmetics or dietary supplements.

“Copepods alone (small crustaceans in the zooplankton [family]) produce a billion tons of chitin per year,” researcher Javier Fernandez told CBS News in an email. “In other words, in the last twelve month they have produced the same amount of chitin than all the plastic we have produced since 2009.”

Led by Fernandez and Dr. Don Ingber, the founding director of the Wyss Institute, researchers developed a way to process the material and manufactured large, three-dimensional objects that can biodegrade quickly when exposed to the environment, especially in the presence of moist soil and the right organisms. They say it could eventually be used to manufacture plastic bags, packaging and even biodegradable diapers.

When compared to petroleum-based plastics, the chitosan material is not naturally waterproof, requiring a coating of beeswax to create a water barrier, Fernandez says.

Created by the team two years ago, it represents the next iteration of a material called “shrilk.” Originally composed of chitin from shrimp shells, plus a protein from silk, they ditched the silk to find a cheaper, easy-to-make bioplastic that could be widely manufactured.

“Shrilk is a very complex materials fabricated with in very specialized environments…which requires a great control of the material at micrometric level. Also the fibroin (the protein form silk we were using) is much more expensive and difficult to extract than the chitosan,” Fernandez explained.

Advantages of using the chitosan-based material for plastic production is not limited to its abundance and biodegradability, but also the ease of manufacturing, which also has little environmental impact, unlike conventional plastics. Fernandez notes that chitosan has been produced with only water and acetic acid in concentration under one percent — nearly one-fifth of the concentration of vinegar. Studies have shown show that water can accumulate pollutants commonly found in plastics, such as BPA — as well as tiny bits of plastic, or microbeads.

“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” Dr. Ingber said in a March press release. “Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bioplastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.”

Current technologies, such as casting and injection molding, can be used to manufacture this type of bioplastic. However, some modifications would be required. These materials will also require some rethinking of “our ideas and ways of working, which have been developing and growing around synthetic polymers,” says Fernandez.

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Latest Stories

  • News

    Anchorage police search teams find value in winter training

    by Dave Leval on Jan 25, 11:25

    The state of Alaska has a lot to offer those who enjoy heading outdoors during winter. But it can also be dangerous should residents get lost. Various search crews gathered at the Beach Lake trails in Chugiak Saturday. They looked for three people who got “lost” while at the park. Except those people had never been […]

  • News

    Walker, congressional delegation ‘outraged’ over Obama’s ANWR proposal

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jan 25, 10:59

    A White House announcement Sunday has sparked Gov. Bill Walker and the state’s congressional delegation to claim that President Obama, along with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, are “declaring war on Alaska’s future.” This follows a move on the Obama administration, proposing new wilderness protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In a release from the White House, […]

  • Weather

    Weekend weather forecast

    by KTVA Weather on Jan 24, 18:29

    Many areas across the Anchorage Bowl saw 3 to 5 inches of snow accumulation with this last snowfall. High pressure is already building in from the east, and it will produce lots of sunshine across the area as we head into Sunday. The trade-off will be pure cold weather with many locations barely getting out […]

  • Sports

    South Anchorage football hires Chris Borst, former Dimond head coach

    by KTVA Sports on Jan 24, 15:21

    After spending five seasons as head football coach for Dimond High School, Chris Borst is moving across town to coach alongside John Lewis at South. Citing differences in coaching philosophies, Borst left Dimond at the end of the 2014 football season. Former Lynx strength coach Nick Winkler will take over head-coaching duties at Dimond. This is […]

  • Politics

    Palin for president? Former AK governor ‘seriously interested’ in 2016 bid

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jan 24, 14:36

    Sarah Palin is “seriously interested” in running a 2016 campaign for the White House, according to a recent interview with the Washington Post. The former Alaska governor, the GOP’s 2008 nominee for vice president – and current star of the Sportsman Channel’s Amazing America with Sarah Palin — was asked by the Washington Post whether she was considering […]

  • News

    Anchorage man fatally struck by vehicle in Las Vegas area

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jan 24, 13:31

    An Anchorage man was struck and killed by a vehicle Thursday evening in the Las Vegas area as he crossed a highway, according to the Nevada Department of Public Safety. According to other local news outlets in the area, the Clark County coroner’s office has identified the man as 57-year-old Aarnout Michael Berry, of Anchorage. At […]

  • News

    Army soldiers at JBER, Fort Wainwright at risk of being cut

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jan 24, 12:39

    U.S. Army officials are holding meetings with 30 communities across the country as decisions are being made about where to cut around 120,000 troops by 2017. Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fort Wainwright are on the list of bases where reductions could be made. Municipality of Anchorage staff are told that it will be up to […]

  • News

    Anchorage police: 58-year-old male found safe

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jan 24, 12:35

    UPDATE: Anchorage police say Marion Dale Quint has been located and is safe. Original story The Anchorage Police Department is asking for public help finding a missing 58-year-old man last seen Saturday morning. Marion Dale Quint left his assisted living home on foot around 9 a.m., according to a statement from APD. The assisted living home […]