May 21

Plastic from Poultry Feathers

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Flock of Chickens

Back when all the boys were young and living at home, dinner in our house often ran toward chicken. Feeding three ravenous boys can get expensive and chicken was then (and is now) a pretty good protein bargain. I’ve probably told you before that the line in our house was not “What’s for dinner?” but rather “What kind of chicken is for dinner?”

But chicken farming (as it’s done by most large chicken operations) is almost as tough on the environment as it is on the chickens. Something has to be done with the mountain of nitrogenous waste from chicken droppings and the tons and tons of feathers, beaks, and feet. One solution showed up in today’s USA Weekend in a little Science blurb by John K. Borchardt titled: A Good Use for Poultry Feathers.

The short piece describes a new process invented by a Virginia Tech biological systems engineer to produce a sturdy biodegradable plastic from the nearly 2 billion pounds of dry chicken feathers produced annually as a byproduct of bringing chicken to the American table. Currently some of the feathers are turned into animal feed (which isn’t the best use of them) or tossed into the landfill.

Just as with farmers who raise chicken the old fashioned way (in the Eden-like interspecies symbiosis of a place such as Polyface Farm, as described so beautifully by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) a workable and profitable system depends on finding uses for every part of the animal.

Using it all is a concept in synch with our paleolithic upbringing. Early humans consumed animals nearly completely–as food, for shelter, clothing, adornment, tool making and the like–leaving unused only the beaks and feet of birds and the some bones and hooves of game animals. And sometimes they even found uses for those things.

Talk about reduce, reuse, recycle!

At a time when large cities up and down the west coast and beyond are contemplating or actually enacting legislation to ban plastic bags and polystyrene foam containers, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for such an entrepreneurial venture as recycling chicken feathers into plastics and chicken poop, not to mention cow and pig manure, into biodiesel.

Once this technology takes hold–and it will–we can feel doubly good about saying “Eat more chicken!”…and beef and pork. Who’d have thought eating more chicken could not only make us healthier as a nation, but might wrest us from the clutches of OPEC?


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