Harvard Shrilk

photo credit Jon Chase

Scientists make new biodegradable plastic from shrimp shells


by Justin Hester


Don Ingber, director at the Wyss Institute, at Harvard has recently announced a new biodegradable plastic that comes from combining the properties of shrimp shells and silk.  The new substance is clear and can be used in many of the most common forms of plastic from egg cartons to plastic bottles.  The scientists are calling the new substance “shrilk”  a combination of shrimp and silk and it has the potential to replace the 30+ million tons of petroleum based plastic the US produces every year.  Globally, the potential impacts of a substance like this is immeasurable with the billions of tons of lethal amounts of plastic that have ended up in our ocean’s garbage gyres.


How did they do it?

The scientists were able to break down the components that make up the shrimp shell and isolate the substance called chitosan.  This chitosan was then combined with a substance found in silk  and made into layers which the scientists were able to create a kind of artificial insect cuticle. This is then what makes up the clear and super strong properties of this new “plastic substitute” they are calling shrilk.


A hatchery on a shrimp farm in South Korea.

A hatchery on a shrimp farm in South Korea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Impacts on a global scale

Each year some 7 million pounds of shrimp are either harvested from the oceans or raised in farms.  Many of these shrimp get de-veined and shelled before they appear in your local supermarket with most of the shells being simply discarded as waste today.  Shrilk has the potential to use that waste product in the production of a usable material that over time should be price competitive with traditional petroleum based plastics. This would take the degradation of plastics from the traditional 1000 years down to just a few weeks.  We don’t know yet whether you will need to worry about that bottle of pop exploding in your fridge, but the discovery of this substance by

The good news is that this isn’t the only replacement being developed to replace traditional petroleum based plastics.  There are in fact many that are in development or in the early stages of production right now.  It will probably take an effort from all of us to make smart product choices and be mindful consumers when it comes to paying a bit more when these products initially hit the market, but the impact globally will be huge.