Plastics made from chicken feathers are becoming a
commercial reality in the U.S.
A Virginia company called Eastern Bioplastics is pitching
keratin plastic made from chicken feathers as a replacement for polyethylene or
polypropylene. Products manufactured with these resins break down into carbon
dioxide and water when placed in environmental conditions.
They will compete against bioplastics such as thermoplastic
starch for disposable utensils and packaging. The keratin fiber is both highly
microcrystalline and very resistant to both mechanical and thermal stress,
making it quite different from other bioplastics.
Separately, The American Nursery & Landscape Assn. and
its Horticultural Research Institute (HRI) are exploring the use of keratin
polymer derived from poultry feathers for plant containers.
The impetus for both projects was research sponsored by the
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to find commercial uses for waste chicken feathers.
In 1998, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service published
its first story about chemist Walter Schmidt
research to turn chicken feather fiber into plastics in the Environmental
Management and Byproduct Utilization Lab. in Beltsville, MD. In collaboration
with the HRI, Schmidt and HRI research associate Masud Huda formulated planting
pots that degrade over one to five years.
Justin Barone, a research associate working with Schmidt,
found that plastics based on the feathers plastic can be molded. In 2006, the
process of making composites and films from feather keratin was patented by
Barone later became the R&D Engineer for Eastern Bioplastics
, which also
makes composites in which a percentage of keratin material is blended (up to 40
percent) with traditional petroleum plastics.
In February 2010, Eastern Bioplastics opened a pilot
commercial plant in Mount Crawford, VA. In addition to supplying resin, the company
also offers molding with four injection molding machines ranging from 44 to 220
tons of clamping force and shot sizes up to 21.4 oz.
K. Marc Teffeau, who also worked with Schmidt, is research
director at HRI, and is in the process of creating a company that will license
keratin formulations to toll compounders. The pots would combine the keratin
resin with polyolefins.
U.S. farmers produce about 5 billion lb of chicken feathers
annually. The primary commercial end product today is feather meal, but the
great majority is landfilled. As an alternative, the feathers could be pulverized,
heated, and mixed with plasticizer, creating a plastic resin.
The potential supply of resin made from chicken feathers
would still be a drop in the bucket - less than 10 million lb a year. Total
resin production in North America last year approached 100 billion lb,
according to a report
from BCC Research.