We can’t get enough of shrimp. It’s one of the top seafoods in the world. As we have talked about in the past, we eat a lot of shrimp and that can be a problem. And now there is another reason to want a lot of shrimp: bioplastic.
Scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have found a way to create bioplastic (plastic made of renewable biological materials, unlike regular plastic derived from petroleum) from shrimp shells. The best part? The plastic is fully biodegradable.
This is good news in the sense that our planet is overloaded with plastic. Our landfills are overflowing with discarded plastic and our oceans are clogged up with them, too. There have been efforts to ban plastic bags and recycle what we have but it has been a challenge to keep up. So for that, bioplastic would definitely be the answer.
Our concern is this: where will we get the shrimp that provide the shells if this method is used on a large scale? The researchers predict that this shrimp bioplastic could be used in the large-scale manufacturing of everyday objects – from cell phones to food containers and toys. Using wild shrimp does not sound like a sustainable solution, since many shrimpers use bottom trawlers that act like the lawnmowers of the sea. Farming shrimp would create the high volume needed to produce bioplastic, but the shrimp farming has to be done sustainably and responsibly. Unless the shrimp farm is recirculating, there is risk of environmental pollution. And many shrimp aquaculture facilities remove ecologically vital mangrove forests in order to set up their tanks.
There are some great sustainable shrimp farms that are right here in the US. We interviewed a couple of them in Flora and Columbus, Indiana. These farms are not very large scale but could be a good model for creating a bioplastic that is as environmentally friendly in the manufacturing process as it is during decomposition. But they won’t be cheap. Asian shrimp is attractive because of low prices, something that isn’t realistic in shrimp farms that take the time and extra steps to make sure they produce a sustainable product.
Which begs the question: how much are we willing to pay for a plastic-free world?
Photo: The Wyss Institute researchers molded a series of chess pieces made of their chitosan bioplastic, demonstrating a new way towards mass-manufacturing large, 3D objects with complex shapes made of fully compostable materials.
Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute