There are various reasons why plastic packaging has become as popular and widespread as it is today. Its form is malleable and can be as sturdy as a lawn chair or as flimsy as plastic wrap. It is waterproof and can be completely sealed to keep products sanitary or fresh. It is extremely inexpensive to make, and durable to a fault. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 2014 conducted a major study to look at the impacts of plastic packaging and found that about 10-20 tonnes of plastic make its way into the oceans every year, costing roughly $13 billion in environmental damages to global marine ecosystems (UNEP, 2014). They also found that the consumer goods industry alone is responsible for a minimum of $75 billion in negative environmental impacts annually, which includes everything plastic waste getting into waterways and oceans to impacts on tourism and greenhouse gas emissions involved in the creation and transport of plastic products (UNEP, 2014). All this is to say, plastic packaging is extremely important to our social and economic systems, but the negative environmental impact that it is currently having is monumental. Enter sustainable packaging.
There is a lot of research currently being done on sustainable packaging by testing plastic alternatives, biodegradable materials, bioplastics made from renewable resources, etc. The bioplastic that I will be focusing on is chitosan because I believe there is a mutually beneficial partnership between researchers/producers and chitin consumers that is not being exploited. Chitin is the second most abundant organic compound on earth—preceded only by cellulose—with roughly 10 tons of chitin being produced every year by living organisms such as crustaceans, insects, and mollusks (Fernandez and Ingber, 2014). Chitin can be extracted from these various animal products and is used to make chitosan, which is a biodegradable bioplastic that is being tested as a potential alternative to standard plastic packaging. There are institutions that are studying ways to transform the chitin in shrimp shells into a usable bioplastic that can improve the shelf life of produce, create 3D molds and be used as plastic wrap (depending on how it is produced), is increasingly versatile, and biodegrades completely when composted (Dumé, 2018; Sherman, 2014). Shrimp is currently one of the most popular sources of chitin that is being studied. However, chitin can be found in a variety of other animal products such as crab and lobster shells, mollusks/nacre, insect exoskeletons, squid pens, and many more.
Some of the issues that chitosan researchers and producers are encountering include difficulty in obtaining large enough quantities of chitin to mass produce the bioplastic and keeping costs low to make chitosan a more competitive option for widespread packaging. I have experience working in animal husbandry in a zoo and aquarium setting and know others who work in the restaurant industry. There are often parts of an animal that are discarded before cooking or serving seafood to people or animals. For example, I was an intern at a local aquarium, and one of my daily tasks was to take the pens (a feather-shaped, plastic-looking spine) out of all the squid before feeding them to the sea lions. I also often saw other keepers taking the shells off huge amounts of shrimp before feeding them out to their animals. I absolutely hate wasting anything, and seeing how parts of the diet were not being used led me wonder if these waste products could be used for anything significant. That aquarium was already part of a fish composting program with a local farm, why not start a program where the waste containing chitin goes to a research facility instead of the landfill?
The future of sustainable packaging lies in partnerships between those creating useable waste and those who are making plastic alternatives. Restaurants, zoos, aquariums, etc., throw out huge amounts of food every day. If the waste with chitin in it can be diverted from landfills and instead donated to researchers or manufacturers, we can simultaneously cut back on food waste and create more sustainable packaging options. A partnership between chitin consumers and chitosan producers could seriously help increase the amount of materials companies have to work with. While I do not believe all of our plastic’s consumption needs could be met by these partnerships, if even 30% of all the chitin came from donated sources, that would certainly help chitosan manufacturers keep their prices more competitive and increase the amount of sustainable packaging being produced in the consumer goods industries.
Fernandez, J.G., Ingber, D.E., 2014. Manufacturing of large-scale functional objects using biodegradable chitosan bioplastic. Macromolecular Materials and Engineering. 299 (8), 932-938.
Sherman, L.M., 2014. Shrimp shells play key role in new bioplastic. Plastic Technology.
United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), 2014.Valuing plastic: The business case for measuring, managing, and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry.
Essay by: Madeline Moran
Arizona State University