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Scientists turn fish parts into environmentally friendly plastic

Scientists turn fish parts into environmentally friendly plastic
Researchers in Canada have developed a cleaner, greener polyurethane-like material using oil derived from fish waste. Photo by Mikhailey Wheeler

April 5 (UPI) -- Scientists have developed a new method for making environmentally friendly plastic out of fish waste -- the heads, bones, skin and guts that get thrown away during processing.

Researchers are scheduled to present their novel plastic production technique Thursday at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society.Polyurethanes, the most common form of plastics, are incredibly robust and versatile, and as a result, they've become ubiquitous.

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But their proliferation has come at a considerable cost to the environment. As numerous studies have revealed, plastic pollution can be found on Earth's icy peaks and deepest ocean trenches -- it really is everywhere.

What's more, making plastic is a dirty business, involving the use of lots of energy, crude oil and harmful toxins.

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To make a cleaner, greener plastic, researchers turned to the scraps thrown away by commercial fishers and fish-processing factories.

"It is important that we start designing plastics with an end-of-life plan, whether it's chemical degradation that turns the material into carbon dioxide and water, or recycling and repurposing," lead researcher Francesca Kerton, a green chemist and professor of chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, said in a press release.

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From the fish waste, Kerton and her colleagues extracted unsaturated fish oil. Then the researchers added oxygen to form epoxides, molecules similar to epoxy resins.

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Finally, using carbon dioxide as a reactive agent, scientists successfully linked the epoxides with nitrogen-containing amines, yielding a polyurethane-like material.

The resulting material is strong but malleable, just like plastic. Most importantly, it doesn't require the use of crude oil or toxic gas, and it's biodegradable -- and it doesn't stink.

"When we start the process with the fish oil, there is a faint kind of fish smell, but as we go through the steps, that smell disappears," Kerton said.

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Recently, researchers successfully tweaked the production process, swapping out amines for amino acids -- a change that simplified the chemistry involved.

Scientists said they are working on ways to make the new material biodegrade more easily, as well as also beginning to test the material's physical properties and considering the material's potential applications.

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