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Chitosan Plastic

May 30, 2014

A biodegradable plastic isolated from shrimp shells could help curb a huge environmental problem.



From shrimp to plastic. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The chitosan bioplastic can be modified for use in water and easily dyed by changing the acidity of the chitosan solution. The dyes used to color these plastic cups and egg cartons can be collected during the recycling process for reuse. (Wyss Institute)

Plastics made from chitosan are versatile and break down quickly. (Wyss Institute)

Plastic waste can take decades or longer to break down, leaching toxic chemicals the whole time. But a new plastic, made from shrimp shells, degrades safely in as little as two weeks. It’s being developed at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute.  According to founding director Don Ingber, lead researcher Javier Fernandez was able to injection-mold the plastic into shapes like chess pieces and egg cartons.

DON INGBER (Wyss Institute, Harvard University):

We literally took one of those clear plastic egg cartons that you may see in the supermarket, and he used that as a mold, and he made one out of this chitosan shrimp shell based plastic.

That suggests it could be more versatile than existing biodegradable plastics.  What’s more, Ingber says the degraded chitosan acts as a fertilizer – so composting it would actually be beneficial. The next step is to partner with manufacturers, to try and produce the new plastics on an industrial scale.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.