Four design students from The Royal College of Art and Imperial College have created a biodegradable and recyclable bioplastic using an unusual material — lobster shell waste. In an initiative dubbed Shellworks, the team — Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar and Andrew Edwards — has developed new manufacturing machines to produce what they believe is a sustainable replacement for single-use plastics. The malleable bioplastic is extremely versatile and can be adjusted in thickness, transparency, flexibility and stiffness to create a variety of biodegradable objects.

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bioplastic packaging for plants and medicine

The critical ingredient in the Shellworks’ bioplastic is chitlin, the world’s second most abundant biopolymer naturally found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Rather than purchase chitlin, an expensive material on its own, the team opted to built a custom small-scale extractor as well as three custom manufacturing machines — the Dippy, a heated dip molder to create 3D forms; the Vaccy, a steam-heated vacuum former for making molded packaging; and the Sheety, a sheet-forming device for creating controlled flat sheets — that each take advantage of a specific material property for different applications. Prototypes have ranged from antibacterial blister packaging to self-fertilizing plant pots.

machine used to make bioplastic

close-up of yellow bioplastic

Since the beginning, product recyclability has stayed at the forefront of Shellworks’ design objectives. Thus, the team steered clear of additives during experimentation and discovered that they could manipulate the bioplastic’s properties by adjusting the ratios of the base ingredients. The highly versatile and recyclable material can be easily turned from a solid back to the original bioplastic solution or used as a natural, non-polluting fertilizer at the end of its lifecycle.

Related: Reebok develops plant-based sneakers made of cotton and corn

petri dishes of bioplastic materials

machine with red lightbulb

The Shellworks team said, “By designing scalable manufacturing processes, applications tailored to the material and eco-positive waste streams, we believe we can demonstrate how chitosan bioplastic could become a viable alternative for many of the plastic products we use today.”

+ Shellworks

Images via Shellworks