Scientists produce biodegradable plastic made from fish waste
‘When we start the process, there is a faint kind of smell, but that disappears,’ explains Francesca Kerton, lead project investigator
Scientists are working on an alternative to conventional single-use plastic. Polyurethanes, a type of plastic, are nearly everywhere—in shoes, clothes, refrigerators and construction materials. But these highly versatile materials can have a major downside. Derived from crude oil, toxic to synthesise, and slow to break down, conventional polyurethanes are not environmentally friendly.
Researchers are devising what they say should be a safer, biodegradable alternative derived from fish waste—heads, bones, skin and guts—that would otherwise likely be discarded or transported for disposal at sea.
The researchers presented their results at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
If developed successfully, a fish-oil based polyurethane could help meet the immense need for more sustainable plastics, says Francesca Kerton, the project’s principal investigator. “It is important that we start designing plastics with an end-of-life plan, whether it’s chemical degradation that turns the material into carbon dioxide and water, or recycling and repurposing.”
To make the new material, Kerton’s team started out with oil extracted from the remains of Atlantic salmon, after the fish were prepared for sale to consumers. “I find it interesting how we can make something useful, something that could even change the way plastics are made, from the garbage that people just throw out,” says Mikhailey Wheeler, a graduate student who is presenting the work at the meeting. Both Kerton and Wheeler are at Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada).
The conventional method for producing polyurethanes presents a number of environmental and safety problems. It requires crude oil, a non-renewable resource, and phosgene, a colorless and highly toxic gas. The synthesis generates isocyanates, potent respiratory irritants, and the final product does not readily break down in the environment. The limited biodegradation that does occur can release carcinogenic compounds.
Meanwhile, demand for greener alternatives is growing. Previously, others have developed new polyurethanes using plant-derived oils to replace petroleum. However, these too come with a drawback: The crops, often soybeans, that produce the oil require land that could otherwise be used to grow food.
Leftover fish struck Kerton as a promising alternative. Salmon farming is a major industry for coastal Newfoundland, where her university is located. After the fish are processed, leftover parts are often discarded, but sometimes oil is extracted from them. Kerton and her colleagues developed a process for converting this fish oil into a polyurethane-like polymer. First, they add oxygen to the unsaturated oil in a controlled way to form epoxides, molecules similar to those in epoxy resin. After reacting these epoxides with carbon dioxide, they link the resulting molecules together with nitrogen-containing amines to form the new material.
But does the plastic smell fishy? “When we start the process with the fish oil, there is a faint kind of fish smell, but as we go through the steps, that smell disappears,” Kerton says.
They have begun examining how readily the new material would likely break down once its useful life is over. Wheeler soaked pieces of it in water, and to speed up the degradation for some pieces, she added lipase, an enzyme capable of breaking down fats like those in the fish oil. Under a microscope, she later saw microbial growth on all of the samples, even those that had been in plain water, an encouraging sign that the new material might biodegrade readily.