An associate professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Justin Barone, is investigating ways to create biodegradable plastics from agricultural byproducts such as poultry feathers and eggs that would be comparable to petroleum-based plastics.

Barone says biodegradable polymers created from such byproducts may add value to the poultry industry and help solve the growing environmental problem of plastic waste. He presented his research findings at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago on 29 March.

“Twelve percent of all plastic packaging ends up in landfills because only a fraction is recycled,” said Barone. “Once in the landfill, it doesn’t biodegrade. The challenge is how can we create a simpler plastic bag or bottle that will biodegrade?”

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According to Barone, the technology to create biodegradable plastics from biomass, such as corn and soybeans, has been around for more than 70 years. The recent push to increase energy production from these feedstocks, however, has increased the value of these agricultural commodities, making products made from them more expensive.

Barone has found that altering the amino acid structure of keratin can improve the strength and longevity of the polymer. In addition, the viscosity can be improved with reducing agents such as sodium sulfite and lubricants such as poultry fat. The solid-state properties can also be modified using divalent transition metal ions to affect stiffness and smell. These will help the keratin polymer be processed faster, be more aesthetically pleasing, and become water resistant and stronger for increased longevity.

Barone’s current research is funded by the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association.