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Shrimp shells could make the green plastic of the future




Workers process shrimp at a factory in Thailand in 2009.
Workers process shrimp at a factory in Thailand in 2009.
Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images

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To paraphrase the famous line from the film, The Graduate, "Two words: Shrimp plastics."

Maybe not what the screenwriters had envisioned, but if scientists at Harvard University have their way, there may be a great future in shrimp plastics. They're made from a polymer called chitin found in shrimp shells and common in the natural world in everything from exoskeletons to butterfly wings.

Unlike other forms of bioplastic, like those made from potatoes or corn, chitin plastic does not simply replace the carbon source for the polymer, it actually replaces the carbon-based plastic polymer, making it a totally biodegradable and sustainable material.

Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute used chitin from discarded shrimp shells from a shrimp processing plant to make plastic materials from egg cartons to chess pieces.

Lead researcher Javier Fernandez joined the show to explain how chitin works.  For more, please click on the "listen now" link.