Business & Policy
From Plastic to Flowerpots
By Sharon Durham
A USDA scientist has found innovative uses for chicken feathers
By Sharon Durham
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. For some, that is just
an old saying; to others, it is a mantra. ARS chemist Walter Schmidt
has lived it for years.
| In an ARS-developed process, chicken feathers are shredded, |
powdered, converted to pellets, and then, with the use of an
injection molder, transformed into biodegradable pots.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. For some, that is just an old saying; to others, it is a mantra. ARS chemist Walter Schmidt has lived it for years.
Schmidt, a scientist in the Environmental Management and Byproduct Utilization Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., develops practical uses for discarded chicken feathers.
In collaboration with the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), Schmidt and HRI research associate Masud Huda have formulated planting pots using feathers that can degrade over variable periods of time—from one to five years.
The pots look and feel like any other plastic planters encountered at your local nursery, but they are made to disintegrate naturally, without harm to the environment. In fact, the pots—manufactured without any petroleum components—would slowly release beneficial nitrogen into the soil.
In 2000, Schmidt and his colleague demonstrated that feathers and quill fibres can be added to plastic used in car parts, such as dashboards, to strengthen them and absorb noise while also reducing the weight of the parts.
Justin Barone, a research associate working with Schmidt, in 2002 found feather-derived plastic can be molded just like any other plastic and has properties very similar to commodity plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene. In 2006, the process of making composites and films from feather keratin was patented by ARS.
Schmidt and Huda are now working to develop fully biodegradable flowerpots. HRI director of research Marc Teffeau says that several commercial pot manufacturers are involved in this phase to determine optimum molding specifications for the containers.
“Our goal is to develop biodegradable keratin-based resins that can be used by container manufacturers to provide environmentally sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based plastic pots, among other products,” says Teffeau.
“The end products will not only help solve the environmental problem of creating biodegradable plastics, but they will also provide a cost-effective commercial use for feathers,” says Schmidt.