An eco-friendly alternative to oil-based plastics has been created using shrimp shells.
The material is designed to be affordable as well as eco-friendly, and scientists hope it will help countries that struggle with waste management such as Egypt.
“Non-degradable plastic packaging is causing environmental and public health problems in Egypt, including contamination of water supplies which particularly affects living conditions of the poor,” explained Dr Nicola Everitt of the Faculty of Engineering at Nottingham University.
Using natural biopolymer products made from plant materials is not a viable option in Egypt because of the competition for land with food crops. However shrimp shells, which posed a local waste problem themselves, can now form part of the solution.
Dr Everitt is leading research together with academics at Nile University in Egypt. Their aim is to produce a biopolymer nanocomposite material which is degradable, affordable and suitable for shopping bags and food packaging.
Chitosan, already used in pharmaceutical packaging because it is antimicrobial, antibacterial and biocompatible, is an artificial polymer derived from the organic compound chitin. This is extracted from shrimp shells using acid and alkali, which assists in the production of long molecular chains which make up the biopolymer.
Everitt said that the use of a degradable biopolymer made from shrimp shells for carrier bags would lead to lower carbon emissions and reduce food and packaging waste accumulating in the streets or at illegal dump sites.
She said: “It could also make exports more acceptable to a foreign market within a 10-15-year time frame. All priorities at a national level in Egypt.”
The developers intend to approach UK packaging manufacturers with the product, which has the potential to increase food shelf life while reducing landfill.