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Researchers study plastics from feathers

Researchers at Iowa State University  are studying ways of making plastics from things such as chicken feathers and soy protein.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Researchers at Iowa State University are pecking away at ways of making environmentally friendly plastic.  From golf tees to a biodegradable flower pot that can be planted directly in the ground, scientists are studying ways of making plastics from things such as chicken feathers and soy protein.

"We are converting waste into something that has value," said Perminus Mungara, a food science and human nutrition researcher working on the project.

Mungara and Jay-lin Jane, a professor in the department, said converting such things as chicken and turkey feathers into biodegradable plastics will help not only the environment, but farmers, gardeners and consumers as well.

Farmers have usually incinerated feathers, turned them into fertilizer of feed for other animals once the birds have been slaughtered.  But the threat of spreading disease from one species to another has made that process unpopular, the researchers said.

Jane and Mungara have been exploring more environmentally friendly ways of disposing of feathers for three years, with the help of the Sara Lee Corp.

The company sends the researchers plastic bags of processed, powdered feather meal from its plants in Storm Lake and Minnesota.

Protein from the meal is blended with liquid plasticizers — substances that make the mixture flexible and soft.  The researchers have also experimented with soy protein that comes from Iowa soybeans.

The mixture is heated to as high as 212 degrees Fahrenheit and then molded into a variety of products.

The biodegradable plastic is as strong as synthetic plastics that are turned into plates and bottles, Mungara said.

One of the most promising uses for biodegradable plastics is as mulching film, used on gardens, farms and golf courses.  Most mulching film is petroleum-based and can take as long as 500 years to decompose, the researchers said.

Jane said there also are benefits for agriculture when soy protein is used to make biodegradable plastic. For example, when the protein is applied to carrots they more than double in size, she said.

The researchers said they have to keep a sense of humor about their work.

"We hear a lot of comments about converting chicken feathers to a silk purse," Jane said.