The world is polluted with plastic. 91% of the stuff can’t be recycled and it takes hundreds of years to decompose. In that time, plastic harms more than 600 wild species while poisoning the air and water. We need an alternative. A substitute almost too good to be true might exist in an unlikely place: crab and shrimp shells.
The shells of crustaceans like shrimp and crab contain chitin, which is a type of polymer. It can also be found in fungal cell walls, which makes it the second most plentiful substance on the planet. There’s a very small chance it will ever be in short supply. It’s also a great way to recycle because the seafood industry produces a lot of shells and has nothing to do with them. By spraying layers of chitin and cellulose fibers – cellulose being the first most plentiful substance on earth – unto a base produced from starchy plants like corn, scientists can create a plastic alternative. 2 pounds of crab and/or shrimp cells can produce 15 bags that are completely biodegradable!
What’s this process like? The first step is to boil the shells in acid. Toss in an alkaline substance to access the chitin, then suspend both these microfibers and cellulose in water. Spray these in alternating layers atop a surface, then wait for it to dry. You end up with a transparent, flexible, and strong material that’s almost identical to plastic wrap. The best news is that this chitin/cellulose material can actually outperform the plastic we’re used to. It would keep food fresher for a longer period of time because it’s more resistant to toxins.
So why aren’t we using this everywhere, given how big a problem plastic pollution is? It’s still expensive to make even though it only uses waste products. The creators are now working on ways to make the chitin/cellulose material cost-effective and appealing to companies.