A promising industry from wasted wealth: Biodegradable organic plastic from shrimp shells and agricultural waste

By Ashraf Amin*

Egypt produces 20 million tons of solid wastes annually, some of which are recycled or buried in landfills, while many are piled up in the roads, water drains or may even lie at the bottom of the sea. This is in short the garbage and plastic waste disaster that requires years to decompose under the sun. Despite of global warnings and some national initiatives to restrict disposable plastics use and circulation, such efforts, unfortunately, are in total meagre with the multiplying daily production of plastic. 

Dr. Irene Sami Fahim, assistant professor at the Industrial Engineering Department, Nile University, says that her focus concern was to find alternatives to plastics and rely on natural sources instead of derivatives of fossil fuels. Dr. Irene had the opportunity to carry out a joint study on plastic alternatives for Nile and Nottingham Universities with the support of the Newton- Mosharafa Fund.

"We sought biodegradable and environmentally friendly plastic compounds. we chose the Chitosan compound, which is extracted from shrimp shells and has multiple uses in the pharmaceuticals. We have found the possibility of using it in the manufacture of alternative plastic models," explains Dr. Irene

According to the information, the annual volume of shrimp shells is estimated by 200 thousand tons, there is no safe way to get rid of these wastes and are often disposed of in drains or landfills. In addition, there are other sources of Chitosan, such as crab shells, some fish and other crustaceans and marine organisms. the researchers found their way into nanoparticles extracted from rice straw and mixed them with Chitosan producing flexible plastic strips. They also benefited from cactus and eggshells with Chitosan to manufacture packaging boxes characterized by a degree of rigidity and fixed dimensions.

Moreover, the research team published 4 research papers and tested the new plastic in food packaging, such as tomatoes. It was found that the new plastic reduces the activity of bacteria and microbes on fruits compared to traditional plastic packaging, which increases the shelf life of agricultural products. 

Expert's Opinion

Dr Conor Snowden, Senior Science Consultant at the British Council said that the generalization of the use of biodegradable plastics in food packaging will reduce the burden of garbage especially in emerging economies and will reduce budgets directed to solid waste management and guide them to support educational and health service projects.

Wasted wealth in garbage

About the next steps of the project, Dr. Irene says that she will conduct researches for a year and a half, hoping to have an industrial production test machine in place to convert the mixture of Chitosan and organic matter additives into a usable compound in industrial production.


*Ashraf Amin is a Senior Editor, Head of the Science and Technology Department in Al-Ahram Newspaper and Responsible for AlAhram Science Cafe. Ashraf holds an M.Sc. degree in Science Policies for Sustainability from Sussex University, Brighton, the UK.