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Your Lobster Leftovers Could Serve up a Substitute for Plastics

Could animal chitin lead to a new tech revolution?

lobsterVodickap / Dreamstime.comThe old DuPont facility off Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield, Virginia, doesn't look like ground zero for the next technological revolution. There's a welding shop next door and a lumber supply company a short walk away. Silicon Valley it ain't. But Richard Feldman, the director of public affairs for Mari Signum, the company that leased the place, speaks with an evangelist's fervor about what might happen there: a leap forward in materials science that could help solve the world's plastics problem.

By now that problem needs little recitation. Because they are so useful for so many purposes, plastics are ubiquitous. About 300 million tons are produced worldwide every year, one-third of that for disposable packaging. But plastics are also an environmental scourge because they do not biodegrade. The price of plastics does not account for floating plastic islands in the oceans, microplastics ingested by wildlife, and other hidden (or not-so-hidden) costs—costs that will linger for decades, if not centuries. One study by the World Economic Forum contends that, given current trend lines, by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean by weight than fish.

If only some more environmentally friendly substance could take plastic's place. Of course, it would have to be biodegradable. And abundant. And easy to obtain—not to mention inexpensive. And like plastic, it would have to be able to serve a vast spectrum of functions, not just one or two.

There is such a substance, Feldman says: chitin.

Chitin is a naturally occurring substance, derived from glucose, that is found in fish scales, butterfly wings, and—of particular note—the shells of crustaceans such as lobster and shrimp. It is one of the most abundant materials on the planet, after the cellulose that makes up the cell walls of plants.

Henri Braconnot, director of the Botanical Gardens at the French Academy of Sciences, discovered chitin (in mushrooms) in 1811. A decade later another scientist, Auguste Odier, found it in the exoskeletons of beeetles, and named it "chiton," from the Greek word for "tunic."

Chitin (pronounced KITE-in) has generated technological interest for decades. "Insect and Fish Shells Can Be Converted Into 'Silk'; Berlin Chemists Discover Way to Make Threads And Film From Chitin," The New York Times reported in 1926. Six decades later, The Times reported on how "crab shells are being turned into a natural insecticide" by turning the shells into chitin granules. Today chitin or its derivative, chitosan, can be found in fertilizers, food processing, paint coatings, water filtration, wine-making, dissolvable stitches, wound dressings, and cosmetics. You can even buy chitosan at Walmart for its supposed weight-loss properties.

Chitin owes its versatility to its broad array of properties: It is biodegradable, non-toxic (the EPA says "no risks to humans are expected when products containing chitin are used according to label directions"), and anti-microbial; chitosan is water-soluble. Being natural, it is environmentally friendly (again, the EPA: "Risks to the environment are not expected because ... chitin is abundant in nature").

The only downside is that, to date, extracting chitin from crustacean shells—where it is bound up with calcium carbonate, which makes it hard—has required a fairly toxic process involving chemicals such as nitric and sulfuric acids.

But that is changing. A Scottish company called CuanTec—which, like Mari Signum, claims to be "leading the revolution against petroleum plastic"—uses a bacterial fermentation process to extract chitin for biodegradable food packaging. Its latest: compostable, single-use milk bottles.

In California, entrepreneur John Felts is hoping to replace standard surfboards, which are made out of polyurethane foam, with a similar foam made out of chitin. And polyurethane foam shows up in far more than surfboards: It's also used in cars, furniture, packaging, and much more. So Felt's company, CruzFoam, trades heavily on its product's environmental benefits. And Penn State is trumpeting the advantages of a product researchers there have developed. Half cellulose and half chitin, the new material "could eliminate millions of tons of petroleum-based plastic annually," the school says.

Mari Signum, a part of Texas-based Sustainable Sea Products International (the company also, conveniently, owns Dickies Seafood) has patented its own chitin extraction process using an ionized liquid far less hazardous than the acids used elsewhere. Company chairman Victoria White—a Canadian native and Cordon Bleu chef, among other things—says terms such as "renewability" and "sustainability" are buzzwords "used rather loosely in green promotional advertising." But Mari Signum really means it: "We may not change the world, but we sure as heck plan on showing the world how to change."

The company currently is finishing construction of the first set of shell bins, microwave ovens, evaporators, and other equipment at its Bellwood facility. Its CEO, John Keyes—who sits on the board of the International Foundation for the Conservation of Nature—says Chesterfield's economic-development staff has been "off-the-charts helpful" as the company got off the ground. An official launch will take place in under a month.

Not every new technology turns out to be a world-changer. (See: Segway, digital audio tape, or Flooz, one of the first attempts at a virtual currency). And chitin faces major issues of scale. At present, CruzFoam says, the world produces 30,000 tons of industrial-grade chitin each year, and "every year landfills are filled with 8 million tons of shrimp, crab, and lobster shell waste." Which is far more than you might think—but still less than 3 percent of the 300 million tons of plastics produced each year. (And those 8 million tons of shells will not produce 8 million tons of chitin.)

Still, if the "chitin revolution" succeeds, then it likely will generate other technological advances down the road, just as the use of petroleum as a substitute for whale oil eventually led to the development of plastics.

You never know. But those looking for a sign that the fates are smiling on chitin might note the address of the building Mari Signum found most suited to its purposes: 8310 Shell Road.

Photo Credit: Vodickap / Dreamstime.com

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  • Don't look at me.||

    No way plastic in the ocean could outweigh fish. Unless all the fish died.

  • MSimon||

    I think krill break down plastic and then bacteria or plants process it further.

    It is food.

    Chitlin' may be. Chitin is not.

  • sarcasmic||

    Krill break down plastic, but some of it stays in the animal, which is then consumed. As a result plastic ends up in the food chain of which krill is at the bottom, and we are at the top. So krill eating plastic means plastic could end up in our food. Which is terrible because plastic is bad.

  • MSimon||

    "Being natural, it is environmentally friendly (again, the EPA: "Risks to the environment are not expected because ... chitin is abundant in nature" "

    If only the same thing could be said of datura.

  • Eric L||

    "Being natural, it is environmentally friendly (again, the EPA: "Risks to the environment are not expected because ... chitin is abundant in nature" "

    Mercury is natural - does that make it environmentally friendly?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Everything is natural.

    It's almost as if different people mean different things when they say "natural." As libertarians, we should not impose our meaning onto the words of a speaker.

  • Jerryskids||

    Does chitin pass through the digestive system intact? If so, you've got great potential there - you feed beetles to the fish and dead fish to the beetles and collect both the beetle shit and the fish shit and extract the chitin at 100% profit.

  • YungWu||

    We feed the rats to the cats and the cats to the rats and get the cat skins for nothing!

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield, Virginia

    REEEEE!!!

  • The Laissez-Ferret||

    It's probably named after Boss Hogg. Since he's an authoritarian figure who chases after cars with Rebel flags on them, he'll get to keep the road in his name.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The price of plastics does not account for floating plastic islands in the oceans, microplastics ingested by wildlife, and other hidden (or not-so-hidden) costs—costs that will linger for decades,

    It seems to me that if these floating islands of plastics exist as I keep reading they do (but they never show pictures of them, only abstractions-- note the link in the story doesn't show a video of the plastic island, it shows something else entirely), it seems like that would be a relatively straightforward cleanup. Some sort of trawler with an open mouth that just grabs up stuff right at the surface could pull in tons of this stuff in a relatively short time.

    Also, plastics DO biodegrade, they just take a really long time, depending on the type of plastic and the conditions around it.

  • MSimon||

    One of the engineering advantages of plastic is that it is not very biodegradable.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So I'm not accused of taking something out of context, or minimizing the impact:

    But in the ocean, which is where a lot of discarded grocery bags, soft drink bottles and six-pack rings end up, plastic is bathed in as much light as water. In 2009, researchers from Nihon University in Chiba, Japan, found that plastic in warm ocean water can degrade in as little as a year. This doesn't sound so bad until you realize those small bits of plastic are toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer. These end up in the guts of animals or wash up on shorelines, where humans are most likely to come into direct contact with the toxins.

    Growing up in the desert southwest, I saw all kinds of plastic detritus that would crumble in your hands when you picked it up. I'm not discounting the byproduct of that-- the microscopic bits that filter out into the environment, but again, depending on its exposure, it can break down fairly quickly.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Ionizing radiation and dessication can sap the material strength of plastics. This is not biodegradation. Biodegradation specifically means can be consumed by microorganisms.

    There may not be a microorganism that can metabolize the constituent chemicals in plastics.

    However, as bioengineering as a field advances, there may be a way to engineer an organism that does.

  • What Smells Like Pee?||

    There are already plastics that are formulated to be biodegrade. The chances of creating more of those seems likely compared to engineering plastic eating bacteria.

  • ||

    The chances of creating more of those seems likely compared to engineering plastic eating bacteria.

    There are already naturally-occurring organism that do eat plastics. At least part of the problem is they're nowhere near as prolific as the naturally occurring organisms that eat cellulose, proteins, etc.

    Even if you doped such organisms into the natural environment you'd either have to continually dope them and/or concentrate the plastic into a habitat for them. It's an anti-solution to the supposed problem.

  • What Smells Like Pee?||

    "There are already naturally-occurring organism that do eat plastics"

    Thank you, I was aware of that. They only work on certain plastics and they don't work very well even there.

    My point was that if one were going to engineer either (more) biodegradable plastics, or (different) bacteria to degrade them, the chances of new plastics are far greater and more within our capabilities.

  • ||

    My point was that if one were going to engineer either (more) biodegradable plastics, or (different) bacteria to degrade them, the chances of new plastics are far greater and more within our capabilities.

    Right and my point was not only in agreement, but expanding on it. Even if you engineered such organisms tomorrow, you would be effectively polluting the environment with *them* and, in order to maintain the plastic-(bio)degrading status quo, need to either continually dope them in or dope their specific variety of plastic in stably and continuously. You wouldn't be cleaning up the ecosystem as much as supplanting it with a stable plastic-dependent ecosystem.

    I'm not convinced the plastics problem *needs* solving but if it did, I agree that approaching it from the plastics production side of the equation as we know and understand it makes far more sense.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    If the plastic continues in high enough volumes, organisms will evolve or reproduce in volume sufficient to consume the plastic. Every niche gets filled if it's possible, and you already have your existence proof.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    specifically means can be consumed by microorganisms.

    That's a good point, I'm interchanging 'biodegradable' with 'environmentally degradable'.

  • Jerryskids||

    It's already been done - it's called The Andromeda Strain.

  • ||

    It seems to me that if these floating islands of plastics exist as I keep reading they do (but they never show pictures of them, only abstractions-- note the link in the story doesn't show a video of the plastic island, it shows something else entirely)

    The term "patch" referring to the plastic pollution in oceanic gyres can be misleading. The pieces of plastic are not necessarily floating bottles, bags, and buoys, but teeny-tiny pieces of plastic resembling confetti, making them almost impossible to clean up.

    These microplastic particles may not be visible floating on the surface, but in this case, they were detected after collecting water samples on Moore's recent six-month expedition to the remote area that had only been explored for plastic once before. (See a map of plastic in the ocean.)

    I'm baffled that a 6 mo. expedition generating a 'prediction' about 'upwards of a million square miles' is seen as anything but a fraud. Where was this guy when MH370 went down?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    That makes much more sense. And I'm not even coming close to saying it's not an environmental concern. But it's annoying that even when you try to google search on 'floating plastic island', that you can't get a single picture, except an impressive filtered instagram pic of a gloved hand holding a kids ball with barnacles on it. Or a beach somewhere in southeast Asia covered in plastic bottles, or a landfill.

  • What Smells Like Pee?||

    "teeny-tiny pieces of plastic resembling confetti"

    Ok

    "making them almost impossible to clean up."

    Not buying it.

  • See.More||

  • sarcasmic||

  • ||

    Still, if the "chitin revolution" succeeds, then it likely will generate other technological advances down the road, just as the use of petroleum as a substitute for whale oil eventually led to the development of plastics.

    And by 'just as' you mean 'nothing like'. The material is explicitly trying to emulate the 'plastics revolution' meaning that any subsequent revolutions as the result of it are likely already existing as a part of revolution that is being emulated.

    The chitin revolution will occupy a teeny tiny space between plastic, steel, concrete and wood that isn't already occupied by plastic, steel, concrete, or wood. Or fiberglass. Or carbon fiber. Or aluminum. Or alloys...

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    This will go nowhere. I have one word for you: plastics. No amount of lobster leftovers is going to supplant artificial polymers.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    As MSimon pointed out above, the lack (or slow) biodegradability of plastics can be a feature. Imagine all the parts on your car that you don't want biodegrading as it sits in the driveway.

    However, temporary or single-use items would be a good area to have a biodegradable option.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    There's so much plastic in this culture that vinyl leopard skin is becoming an endangered synthetic.

    -Lily Tomlin

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    But Richard Feldman, the director of public affairs for Mari Signum, the company that leased the place, speaks with an evangelist's fervor about what might happen there:

    I'll wait for the crazy TED Talk.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    "...non-toxic (the EPA says 'no risks to humans are expected when products containing chitin are used according to label directions'."
    Some people are deathly allergic to shell fish, which I would assume has something to do with something in the Lobster's bodies.

    They might want to work that out before packaging all food in Chitin.

  • jk36||

    This is old news. Numerous people, companies, Universities have had this idea going back to the 1920's. There are processes out there already which don't use the harsh chemical process. Proof: look up the various patents. The problem this company is going to learn the hard way after they spend way too much time and money on chitin is the location of the chitin raw material is spread over too much territory. It is seasonal is another. Another is the "catch companies" want to be paid for the raw material. Another is there are other raw materials which are cheaper. There are others I'll don't even need to get into. Sorry, but this is not a great new idea by any stretch.

  • ThomasD||

    Yeah, can't help but suspect this is not much more than an updated version of Bakelite.

    Might as well consider shellac too.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    No lobster girl? That's disappointing.

  • gormadoc||

    Chitin is interesting for plastics, but not as an alternative. Rather, chitin shows us how we can make better plastics. Relatively recently a PMMA plastic was developed that has very high reflectivity of visible light and can be easily switched between opaque and transparent with water. This was based on research on the structure of a specific beetle's chitin.

  • ThomasD||

    Making plastic from chitin is a lot like making paint from milk.

    And unless is can compete with the economics of making acrylics/plastics from acetate it is a technology going nowhere any time soon.

  • Curly4||

    Plastic can also be made to be biodegradable but it is not in most cases because it will not function as well as the plastic we have now. Most plastics have to be designed to be resistant to ultraviolet degradation. So can this chitlin plastic can it be to do the same job that other plastics do? If not I highly doubt it would be a success.

  • vek||

    Seems like the only potentially viable way to do this would be to raise some sort of insects that produce the stuff in captivity, then do your process. That seems expensive and wacky. Unless it is cheaper than plastic, and scalable, it can never replace it. Plus why not just other bio plastics made from oil extracted from plants etc? There may be a niche market for this stuff, but it probably won't take over the world.

  • ace_m82||

    Elder Scrolls did it first:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FlqEhfdyPU

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I was just trimming my fingernails and came up with a great new business idea that will save the world. Are you with me?

  • Captain Malthus Reynolds||

    "Your Lobster Leftovers Could Serve up a Substitute for Plastics"

    Well that's all fine and good, but I've also been accumulating a pretty impressive pile of caviar tins and Macallan bottles in the corner of my vomitorium. What should I do with those?

  • prediksi hk||

    itu sangat enak di panggang

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