Gen Z In Focus — How A Teen Created Plastic From Prawn Shells

Today’s youngsters are hardworking, optimistic and raring to take on the challenges of the world. And they are increasingly leaving a mark with their ingenious and effective inventions.

Photo Credit: Angelina Arora

The article was originally published on WeNaturalists, as a part of the curated section by the editorial team. For similar stories head to our Explore section.

It’s no secret that the world is facing a massive plastic waste crisis today. According to the statistics, we have produced around 9.2 billion tons of plastic to date, out of which 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And 6.3 billion of that never got disposed off properly.

Yet, plastic production shows no signs of stopping. Rather to the contrary, the amount of plastic manufactured globally has increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015. And that number is expected to double by 2050. Thus we can say that the plastic crisis is only going to get worse in the future.

The need to solve this plastic waste problem has become urgent and as such, efforts are being made worldwide to create a suitable alternative to plastic. While a majority of the people working on these projects are researchers and scientists, youngsters like college and university students are also taking up this challenge to create a sustainable world for everyone.

A teenage girl named Angelina Arora from Sydney, Australia is one such individual. Interested in science ever since she was a kid, Arora decided to try and create something positive for the environment as part of her science project.

After witnessing local supermarkets charging extra for a plastic carry bag, she decided to find a viable alternative to plastic.

Arora first began by using cornstarch and potato starch to make plastics, but these weren’t viable as the materials were soluble in water. Then, she decided to experiment with organic wastes. She used different kinds of materials like banana peels for example, but those too were not practical.

One day she saw discarded prawn shells, crab shells and fish heads at a local fish shop and noticed their resemblance to plastic. Arora then decided to experiment with them. She collected as many prawn shells as she could, took them to her college laboratory and began working.

While doing her research, she found that prawn shells contain a polysaccharide called a chiton, which she was able to extract. She then converted it into chitosan and combined it with fibroin, the silk obtained from spiders, to produce her biodegradable plastic.

Her bioplastic can break down in 33 days and does not release any toxic chemicals in the environment in the process. It is also transparent, durable and water-insoluble. Furthermore, since the prawn exoskeleton is rich in nitrogen, which is released when the plastic breaks down, it can be used as natural compost in agricultural fields.

Her invention won her Innovator to Market Award in the 2018 BHP Billiton Foundation Science and Engineering Awards. She also stood fourth at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair where she competed against students from 81 countries.

Additionally, she received a scholarship to a prestigious US university and was named the Australian Geographic society’s Young Conservationist of the Year in 2019.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Arora’s invention is revolutionary in more than one way. Not only can it provide an eco-friendly alternative to plastic but it can also prevent the creation of large amounts of seafood waste by utilizing them in the manufacturing process.

Prawns and other seafood is consumed in large quantities all over the world. Infact, the U.S. alone consumes 1 billion pounds of prawns (known as shrimps in the U.S.) every year.

The waste products of this seafood can serve as raw materials in the manufacturing of eco-friendly plastic. This would be a great invention for the planet and the economy as it will produce sustainable plastic while also providing additional income to fishermen. It will also reduce the amount of waste generated and give a boost to creating a circular economy.

Arora is currently finalizing the legal aspects such as patents, although a prototype is ready for manufacturing and commercial distribution. Recognizing the potential of Arora’s invention, many international companies have expressed interest in this new plastic. Arora is in talks with them about the next stages and hopes to introduce a finished product in the market soon.

A suitable alternative to plastic finally looks within reach.

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