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's 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 ARS.
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.