Plastic, the material that’s found in everything from toys to cars, has become a bit of an environmental issue. However, with a breakthrough at Harvard, it may be soon changing its ways.
Taking a number of centuries to break down, petroleum-based plastic is quickly filling up our landfills, and even making its ways into the environment. According to Columbia University, roughly 34 billion tons of plastic waste is generated each year in the United States alone. With only 7 percent of that material being properly recycled, it is far from sustainable. There are also an estimated 100 million tons of the material circulating the world’s oceans, which continue to pose a threat to marine life and the food-chain.
While so-called “wonder-materials” such as bioplastics have been developed to combat the issue at hand, they do not completely break down in the environment. More-so, they are limited to use in packaging materials and food containers due to their limited structural properties.
However, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have isolated a new bioplastic from the shells of shrimp. Primarily composed of chitosan, the main ingredient in the shells of crustaceans, this new material has been dubbed “Shrilk”.
Shrilk has the benefit of being cheap and easy to manufacture, all whilst maintaining a degree of strength. This means that for the first time, a renewable material can be used to make large, 3D objects using traditional manufacturing molds. Objects made of Shrilk can thus be mass-produced, and replace the plastic found in our trash bags, packaging, and diapers.
Speaking this past March, Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said that “there is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced” and that “our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bio-plastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.”
Unlike traditional plastics, Shrilk will begin to break down within three weeks once discarded. Better yet, the Wyss institute noted that after those three weeks, the material promoted plant growth, as they managed to grow a black-eyed pea plant in soil enriched with the discarded Skrilk.
For the sake of the environment and our planet, hopefully we’ll soon see Shrilk in a product you regularly use. Take a look at the video below to see the material at work.