At your next cocktail party, don’t throw away those shrimp shells so fast – you may be holding the future of plastic in the palm of your hand. That’s right. The stuff that shrimp shells are made of – chitin – is incredibly cheap and abundant, and may just be the solution to our plastic problem. Javier Fernandez and Dr. Donald Ingber, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute believe that their newly developed bioplastic holds tremendous promise.

The problems with the plastic we use now are numerous. First, it is derived of petroleum, a fossil fuel whose refining process pumps pollutants into our ground, water, and air. Second, the chemicals we use to give plastics their hardness or flexibility, like phthalates or bisphenol A, can interfere with the body’s hormone messengers, and alter processes such as metabolism and reproduction. Finally, plastics don’t biodegrade. It will be well past our lifetimes before bacteria evolve to break down plastic in the wild, and in the meantime the plastic we throw away winds up in landfills, our streams and rivers, and our oceans.

The new chitan-based plastic, however, biodegrades. It is derived from marine animals, and once discarded breaks down very easily. As a bonus, the material is compostable, and can also be used as fertilizer. Finally, rather than using toxic chemicals to create hardness or flexibility, the Harvard team used natural products like water and wood flour (a waste process from wood processing).

Now, this isn’t to say you’ll be able to find chitin-based products on shelves next week. Cost is a factor in everything, and mass manufacturing means that the creation process would have to be scaled up. Additionally, the material will have to be thoroughly tested for safety and stability. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe – after all, anthrax, arsenic, and ricin are all “natural” products.

But Fernandez and Ingber are hopeful. “The plastic problem is so huge and so bad that we have to explore all options,” said Ingber. “This is an exciting one.”

To learn more about Fernandez and Ingber’s work, visit The Huffington Post.

Image Credit: pinay06