Preserving the Environment

How the Humble Shrimp Could Fix a Jumbo Environmental Problem

March 6, 2014
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How the Humble Shrimp Could Fix a Jumbo Environmental Problem
Chitosan Bioplastic Vimeo
Harvard scientists’ ambitious plan to reduce trash? Turning discarded food into plastic.

As the saying goes, your trash is someone else’s treasure. And in this case, your discarded food waste is the vital ingredient needed by scientists to make bioplastic (plastic made from renewable biological sources).

Scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have figured out a way to turn chitosan (the second most common organic material found on the planet and a component of shrimp shells) into bioplastic.

The idea of bioplastic isn’t new; there are already types made out of wood, corn, potato, wheat, tapioca and rice. But there’s a big downside to bioplastic: It’s costly and energy intensive to produce, and it doesn’t easily degrade in landfills. The new chitosan-based bioplastic, however, uses an already-abundant waste resource (discarded shrimp shells), plus a waste product from wood remnants. This “miracle material” also breaks down into useful components for soil in about two weeks, TreeHugger reports.

MORE: These Researchers Want to Put Plastic Bags in Your Gas Tank

What’s neat about this stuff is that it can be injection molded or cast into any shape, whether it be toys, cell phones, or Tupperware. Plus, it is fully biodegradable. 

“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” said Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering at Harvard. “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.”

Let’s give a jumbo thanks to the lowly shrimp.

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