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You'll Never Guess What Harvard Engineers Are Using to End Plastic Pollution

A new biodegradable material developed by researchers at Harvard shows promise as a viable replacement for conventional plastics.


The average American discards approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year. Much of this plastic waste is washed away on oceans, beaches, and landfills, making plastic pollution an unsalvageable feat. 


Enter the humble shrimp.


Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering declared that chitosan, a substance found in the shells of crustaceans and parts of insects, could make up bioplastic. Chitosan is a form of chitin and it is the second most abundant organic material on Earth. 


“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said in a statement. “Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bioplastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.”


Bioplastic has long been introduced as an alternative to conventional plastic but often does not degrade in landfills, and is difficult to mold into hardy, complex 3D shapes that can be mass produced.   On the other hand, chitosan bioplastic can be molded into objects that exhibit many of the same properties as those created with synthetic plastics, but  breaks down in a few weeks and releases rich nutrients for plants. 


The Wyss Institute team has successfully fabricated chitosan into cups and food containers. Their next challenge involves refining their chitosan fabrication methods and exploring ways to make trash bags, grocery bags, packaging materials and diapers out of this biodegradable material. 


What you can do:


  • Watch and Share this fascinating Wyss Institute Video about its new bioplastic: