Egyptian researchers aim to reduce Egypt's plastic waste by introducing biodegradable plastic made of shrimp shells.
Researchers at the Nile University, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Nottingham, are working towards an environmentally-safe plastic. In their study, Irene Samy and her colleagues detail how chitosan makes crustacean shells suitable for producing a plastic-like film. Not only is this type of biodegradable plastic safe for the environment, it also has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
The world produces a lot of plastic waste. In fact, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of plastic have made their way into the world's oceans. This adversely affects the health of marine life, especially with the possibility of harmful plastic entering the food chain. Birds and marine animals often also get entangled in plastic, thus negatively impacting their mobility. This can make them unable to find food or a mate, and it also makes them more vulnerable to predators.
Egypt, like much of the rest of the world, also produces a lot of plastic waste. This is something that Samy and her colleagues want to change. The purpose of their study is to find a way to cut Egypt's plastic waste as well as its biowaste. "Egypt imports around 3,500 tonnes of shrimp, which produce 1,000 tonnes of shells as waste,” claims researcher Hani Chibb. Using discarded shrimp shells to produce biodegradable plastic is thus a lot like hitting two birds with one stone.
To supply their research, the team bought discarded shrimp shells from Egypt's markets and fishermen at cheap prices. The team then cleaned and treated the shells with chemicals. Afterward, they ground the shells up to a powder and dissolved it into a solution that dries into a film. The team claims that this technique can translate easily to mass production.
The amount of plastic the team produced isn't much. Only some small samples exist at the moment. However, they have high hopes for their product. "We are continuing to work on enhancing its properties, like thermal stability and durability," Samy says. The plastic's antibacterial and antimicrobial properties also make it ideal for use in Egypt's food exports. The researchers aim to perfect the plastic and make it available for widespread use. With the technique the team developed, mass production of the plastic may soon be possible.
This isn't the first time that biodegradable plastic made an appearance. Scientists from Harvard have also created a similar product from shrimp shells. Other organic materials also make many kinds of bioplastics.
However, most other bioplastics are made of plant cellulose. The cellulose goes through some alterations in order to produce bioplastic. Altered cellulose does not fully degrade, and the whole point of bioplastic is to be biodegradable. Shrimp shell plastic, meanwhile, retains the molecular structure of chitosan, thus making more environmentally safe.
Egypt's shrimp shell plastic is still in its prototype stage, but its researchers are confident about the product. They are hard at work on making this biodegradable plastic the thing of the future.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!