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Eco-friendly plastic: a new use for chicken feathers

By Leslie Ballentine, Farming and food commentator

Turning chicken feathers into ‘green’ plastic is not a new idea. Government and university scientists in the U.S. first began serious research into the possibility years ago. The goal for researchers and plastic manufacturers has been to develop a substitute for petroleum in some plastic products. This year, some technical hurdles have been over-come and this bio-degradable plastic is now being produced commercially.

Scientists recently reported they have overcome a big obstacle in making plastics from chicken feathers: improving performance when the plastic is wet. The research, announced at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, is significant for making thermoplastics, a class of plastics like nylon and polystyrene that need heat to harden from a liquid to their final shape. Thermoplastics are used to make everything from toothbrush bristles to car bumpers.

A little science lesson here.

Feathers are mostly made of keratin, a protein also found in hair, hoofs and horns. Chicken feathers are an excellent replacement to petroleum-based plastics because keratin, a tough protein, can lend strength and durability to plastics. As with other sources of bio-plastics, such as corn, chicken feathers are also inexpensive, abundant, biodegradable and renewable, unlike petroleum.

The researchers processed the feathers with chemicals to create a thermoplastic that is stronger and more resistant to tearing than plastics derived from soy protein or corn starch — plus, it’s the first chicken-feather-based plastic to have good water resistance.

“We are trying to develop plastics from renewable resources to replace those derived from petroleum products,” Yiqi Yang, who is an authority on biomaterials and biofibers in the Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in a statement. “Utilizing current wastes as alternative sources for materials is one of the best approaches toward a more sustainable and more environmentally responsible society.” He reported that the U.S. alone produces more than 3 billion pounds of chicken feathers each year.

Processors from around the world are starting to take an interest in this keratin resin plastic, according to Modern Plastics Worldwide. The biodegradable material can be moulded neat or blended with standard thermoplastics to create ‘green’ plastics. One hurdle for scientists is making sure that any plastic they develop performs just like petroleum-based products, so that it’s easy and inexpensive for manufacturers to substitute.

Tyson Foods, a major U.S. poultry processor, is developing plastics, adhesives and non-woven materials from the keratin protein found in feathers. According to news reports, the company believes that one day disposable diapers or hospital gowns might be created using the material. The challenge, they caution, is coming up with products that manufacturers and consumers want at a price that’s right.

Granted, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of new products born from the deaths of animals. In reaction to the news of this eco-friendly breakthrough, PETA’s Kathy Guillermo, vice president of laboratory investigations, told USA TODAY that: “The last thing we need in this country is another use for the bodies of animals.”  For the rest of us, and the planet,  however it should be good news.

Until the Next BLOG.



Posted by FFC on November 7th, 2011 :: Filed under animal by-products,Chickens,Environment,Innovation and technology,PETA,Research
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