Conservation, consumers

Scientists Make Biodegradable Polymers from Shrimp Shells

Scientists have found a way to make a biodegradable polymer from shrimp shells.
Photo: Shutterstock

Egypt has a waste problem, and shopping bags and food packaging being a considerable part of it. This plastic, which is largely not biodegradable, ends up in the streets and at illegal dumping sites as often as it ends up in proper landfills. Bioplastics made from plants are a partial solution to such a problem in many places, but not in Egypt, where space for food crops is limited enough as it is.

But British and Egyptian scientists may have struck on a solution: shrimp. Shrimp shells make up another large part of Egypt’s waste problem, but those shells can be treated and turned into a material known as chitosan, a biodegradable polymer that could be used for making shopping bags. It has the benefits of being affordable and being a solution that wouldn’t compete with food crops.

“Use of a degradable biopolymer made of prawn shells for carrier bags would lead to lower carbon emissions and reduce food and packaging waste accumulating in the streets or at illegal dump sites,” said Dr. Nicola Everett of the University of Nottingham, lead researcher. “It could also make exports more acceptable to a foreign market within a 10-15-year time frame. All priorities at a national level in Egypt.”

On top of all that, it might be possible to make it absorb oxygen, which when used in food packaging, could actually improve the shelf life of foods, which could be a boon across the world.

Food waste is a huge problem globally, with grocery stores in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and until last year France, throwing away millions of tons of food because it’s “past the shelf date.” While much of that food is still perfectly good, with better packaging it might remain good for even longer, meaning less of it ends up in dumpsters and landfills.

Don’t expect to see chitosan bags in stores next week though, as the researchers are still working on developing the process of making those bags. They’re also trying to make that process more efficient so that it can be scaled up for industrial production. Just because a material is more eco-friendly doesn’t mean it will catch on in manufacturing—it has to be cheap enough to be worth the investment for companies that might use it before it can save the world.

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