This sounds like something straight from a science-fiction movie. A process in which lobster shells and other types of shellfish can be used to produce plastic. Would this even work? And wouldn’t the plastic smell very fishy? It turns out that a layman can’t even tell the difference between this “lobster plastic” and regular petroleum-based plastic. It looks, feels and smells the same.
Shellfish, also called Crustaceans, are some of the oceans’ most desired delicacies, with the additional bonus of already coming in their own eco-friendly and robust packaging. Unfortunately, up until now there was little to no use for the leftovers of these sea creatures. Hence most of them ended up in either a landfill – or in the case of the more gastronomically devoted- in a lobster stock soup, before ultimately ending up in the compost bin.
Thankfully, researcher at McGill University have found a much better use for lobster and other crustacean shells – producing plastic. As mentioned before, this seems a bit far-fetched, but the process is a bit simpler than anticipated. The shells of insects and crustaceans contain a material called chitin. Chitin is a fibrous component of these animals’ exoskeletons, making them tough and resistant. Furthermore, chitin has a relatively similar chemical structure as cellulose. Cellulose is a plant-derived component which has already been used for some time now to produce PLA, plant based plastics. Cellulose can also be used to make paper, cellophane film as well as textiles.
During the production process of plastic through chitin, the chitin is processed into chitosan, which can be used to create bioplastics. Audrey Moore is an associate professor of applied chemistry who has found a way to derive a more durable form of chitosan through a simple process. This process doesn’t require special skills nor equipment, and it breaks down fewer of the polymer chains which results in a stronger more durable material.
The future of chitosan-plastic is extremely promising. This out of a few reasons, namely that it is a non-toxic and biodegradable material. Additionally, lobsters and other crustaceans aren’t the only source of chitin, as this molecule can be found in some insects as well.
However, chitosan-plastic isn’t quite ready yet to make for a reliable replacement of oil-based plastic. Let alone the fact that the value-chain and the supply chain of lobster and other shellfish industries are not nearly competent nor efficient enough to produce enough exoskeletons to make the sufficient levels of plastic to obey to global demand. Nonetheless, most scientist familiar with the subject are confident that chitin-plastic can find widespread biomedical applications as it is non-toxic and safe for medical use and medical packaging.
In conclusion, there must be more research conducted into the subject of chitin-plastic. And we can be confident that this might be a viable replacement in the near future. Plus it would be a plastic that is fully biodegradable in addition to making the fishing industry more circular.