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Scientists Convert Feathers Into Biodegradable Plastic

Biodegradable plastics can be made from chicken feathers
Biodegradable plastics can be made from chicken feathers
Zulima Palacio

If you're a home gardener you may soon find that the pots you buy flowers and plants in are made from chicken feathers. Yes, tons of feathers that go to waste every year can now be transformed into plastics.  Two Washington-area scientists are using feathers to produce biodegradable plastics and other materials that could change the future of the plastic industry. 

Every year the U.S. poultry industry produces nearly 2,000 metric tons of feathers.  Some are used to make pillows, coats and low-grade animal food.  But about 80 per cent goes to waste.
Not any more.  Soon, it will be possible to convert those waste feathers into biodegradable plastics.  Chemist Masud Huda is with the Horticultural Research Institute.

"Here are the resin formulations, which is 100% feather base," said Masud Huda. "This is the basic material for any other applications not only the pottery containers but it can also be used in the automotive industry parts or any other applications."

A few years ago Huda joined forces with researcher Walter Schmidt at the US Department of Agriculture, who was working on practical uses for discarded chicken feathers.  Together, they produced art paper, absorbents, water and air filters, and insulation materials - all made from feathers.   

Schmidt says the chemical composition and strength of the feathers makes them a great material for many uses.

Feathers are about eight times as strong as cellulose," said Walter Schmidt. "By design, feathers are strong and durable.  If feathers were twice as heavy or half strong then birds couldn't fly."

Later, Schmidt and Huda produced biodegradable plastics and started making plastic flower pots.  
While pots made from petroleum plastics can last indefinitely, Schmidt says most are never re-used because of concerns about contamination.  

The pots made from feathers, on the other hand, are designed to last from six months to a few years..

"Plastics from petroleum often stay around a couple hundred years; so why do you want a plastic that you use for a year to last a couple hundred years, make no sense, match the product with the use," he said.

The two scientists have also made prototype dash-boards for cars and other parts for the automobile industry.  They say the possibilities for substitute plastics are great.  To their biodegradable pots they are now adding other waste materials, which could also be beneficial to the plants.

"This is pelletized manure that we can actually add to the flower pots so they get nutrients from the pot themselves," said Schmidt.

The scientists hope that in a year or two their biodegradable flower pots will be on the national market, marking the beginning of the end for plastic pots.

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