News / Science & Technology

Shrimp Shells Could Provide Biodegradable Plastic Alternative

Cups and egg containers made of shrimp shell derived plastic are seen In this photo provided by the Wyss Institute.
Cups and egg containers made of shrimp shell derived plastic are seen In this photo provided by the Wyss Institute.

Related Articles

Microbes Could Help Clean Up Oil Spills

Microorganisms consume methane and other components in natural gas

UN's Ban Urges Climate Action Ahead of New York Summit

Secretary-general says he was hopeful that goal of limiting global temperature rises to maximum 2°C can be achieved

Video Study: Climate Change Disrupting Americans' Lives

2014 National Climate Assessment says effects of climate change 'expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond'
A substance found in the shells crustaceans and parts of insects could provide the world with an abundant and environmentally friendly way to replace many plastics.

It’s called chitosan, a resilient form of chitin, which researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering say is the “the second-most abundant organic material on Earth.”

Chitin is a tough polysaccharide found in the shells of crustaceans.

After Wyss announced its progress making chitosan-based materials in March, they were approached by a variety of companies and entrepreneurs eager to learn about it and explore possible commercial uses, said Javier Fernandez, a lead researcher on the project.

One example, a simple drinking cup, could be made from about 200 grams of shrimp shells, about a handful, Fernandez said. 

To put that in perspective, Fernandez said that one species of plankton-sized crustaceans, the copepod, is estimated to produce billions of tons of chitin each year.

“That means that they have produced in the last 12 months roughly the same amount of chitin than the worldwide plastic production since 2009,” he said in an email.

According to the Wyss Institute, humans manufacture about 34 million tons of plastic waste per year, recycling a mere seven percent. The remaining 93 percent ends up in landfills and oceans.

Wyss said that plastic in landfills could take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and that there is an estimated 100 million tons of plastic swirling around in the world’s oceans.

“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said in a statement. “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.”

While there are several bioplastics on the market, they are commonly made of cellulose, a plant-based material. These, Wyss researchers say, have only been made into “simple containers for food or drinks.”

So far, shaping cellulose into durable, complex 3D shapes that can be mass produced using  “traditional casting or injection molding manufacturing techniques” has remained elusive, researchers at Wyss said.

While Harvard researchers have made cups and food containers from chitosan, they say it could also be used to make trash bags, grocery bags, packaging materials and diapers that are biodegradable and release nutrients for plants.

Fernandez said shrimpers around the world, particularly in Vietnam, India and Honduras, are always looking for economically viable ways to discard shrimp cells.

Chitosan-based material could make the waste another revenue source, said Fernandez, adding that would be an important step in mass producing chitosan.

Currently, the majority of shrimp shells are discarded, used in fertilizers, or for cosmetics and dietary supplements.  

Finally, those who suffer from shellfish allergies need not worry about food packed in a chitosan container, said Fernandez. The part of the shrimp that causes allergies is in the musculature, not the shell, he said.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Leslie Harty from: North Carolina
May 08, 2014 3:32 PM
There has been a product made in the US using shrimp, clams, crabs, and other chitosan for several years called "Green Film Natural". It is not solely shrimp, but other crustaceans shells that are normally thrown away after processing.It has been used for cups, trays, films. It is currently being tested for a diaper backing at a major diaper company.

by: Jaycey from: Zaporozhzhte, Ukraine
May 08, 2014 9:43 AM
Nothing very new here.

I recall reading some years ago that Chitin from cockroach shells has been used for some HiFi loudspeaker diaphragms.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs