In response to society becoming increasingly aware of the impact humans are having on the environment, some of the world’s brightest minds are offering up innovative ways to minimize pollution all over the world. One particularly interesting example of this comes courtesy of the researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, who have developed a degradable bio plastic made from cellulose in shrimp shells, which may provide a solution to planet-clogging synthetic plastics.
Chitosan bio plastic is made from isolating chitosan, a form of chitin — which happens to be the second most abundant organic material on Earth. Chitin is the main component in shells of crustaceans, the cuticles of insects and in the wings of butterflies. The chitosan that the Wyss Institute uses comes from shrimp shells, most of which would otherwise be discarded or used in fertilizer or makeup. Prior to this, it was difficult to get the substance to maintain more complex 3D shapes. Researchers combated this issue by creating shrilk – a mix between the chitosan and a fibrous protein from silk. According to the press release, shrilk is cheaply and easily fabricated by a novel method that preserves chitosan’s strong mechanical properties. The researchers said that for the first time, this tough, transparent, and renewable material can be used to make large 3D objects with complex shapes using traditional casting or injection-molding techniques.
All other benefits aside, this technique also opens the door to mass production. Shrilk – which decomposes in just a few weeks – could replace traditional synthetic plastics – which take hundreds of years to decompose – in the production of diapers, plastic bags, food packaging, and beyond.
“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said in March while discussing the progress his team was making with chitosan. “Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bio-plastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.”
Today, 80 percent of ocean debris comes from land-based sources, and 60 to 80 percent of that debris is plastic. The University of California San Diego found plastic in 9.2 percent of the fish they studied. According to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, it is reported that the two main rivers that drain Los Angeles’ watershed deposits 2.3 billion plastic fragments into the ocean every 72 hours.
Moshe Begim, a businessman currently working out of California, is president of AVC Corporation – a manufacturer of custom plastic and paper packaging materials designed for retail products. He acknowledges that the statistics paint a dreary picture, and insists that it’s “vitally important” for packaging agencies to go green.
“Designing new packaging concepts is evolving even as we speak,” Begim said. “AVC is a leader in green packaging, moving away from large plastic packaging into greener more sustainable packaging. It used to be 6-7 years ago, that all packaging was made from PVC. Now it is virtually zero.”
An estimate on 5gyres.org calculates roughly 315 billion pounds of plastic in the ocean right now.
“We need to find ways to decrease our footprint on the Earth,” Moshe Begim continued. “Look at the amount of packages that are sent every single day, and the amount of goods that are shipped across oceans. If we can come up with a more sustainable, green way to send all these packages, what a difference we could make on our environmental impact right away.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2008, plastics amounted to about 12 percent of the country's municipal solid waste stream – up from less than 1 percent 50 years ago. That translates to about 30 million tons of plastics – close to half of it in the form of containers and other types of packaging.
This is a global problem that will not be solved by one big band-aid. However, if researchers like the ones at the Wyss Institute continue to make advancements, and if industry leaders like Moshe Begim continue to draw attention to the issue, we will lay the groundwork for solutions that would have seemed unfathomable just a decade ago.