Innovation That Matters

Using fish oil, researchers have made a polyurethane-like material | Photo source Mikhailey Wheeler

A plastic made from fishery waste


Researchers have developed a biodegradable plastic derived from organic fish waste that would otherwise be thrown away

Spotted: Polyurethane plastic is used in a huge variety of products – from packaging to refrigerators. However, this type of plastic is derived from petroleum products and is not only very slow to degrade, but its manufacture involves the use of toxic gas. Now, researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland have developed a fish-oil based polyurethane that acts like conventional plastics but is biodegradable.

To make the material, the team, led by Francesca Kerton and Mikhailey Wheeler, first extracted oil from scraps of Atlantic salmon, leftover after the fish were processed for sale. Oxygen was added to the unsaturated oil to form epoxides, molecules similar to those in epoxy resin. The epoxides were then reacted with carbon dioxide, and the resulting molecules were linked together using nitrogen-containing amines or amino acids, in order to form the new material.

While the process starts with fishy-smelling oil, that smell disappears by the time the final product emerges. The researchers have also begun looking at the use of more sustainable linking components and at how rapidly the new material is broken down by microbial action. Initial results suggest it is biodegradable. Moreover, there is no shortage of raw materials — salmon farming is a major industry for coastal Newfoundland, where the university is located. 

Kerton points out the importance of creating biodegradable plastics, saying, “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.” Wheeler adds, “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.”

Kerton and Wheeler are not alone in feeling that the time has come to find sustainable replacements for plastics. At Springwise, we have covered a growing number of innovations in this space, including bioplastics made from slaughterhouse waste products and high-tech ski goggles made from corn and castor bean derivatives. Soon, bioplastics may be able to replace most types of plastic.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

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