“It is the same protein that spiders use to make webs. It’s very sticky. When you mix it with chitin, it produces a fabric that is flexible, strong and exhibits all the properties you want in plastic. In short, the final material has the strength of a prawn’s shell and the flexibility of a spider’s web. The plastic also degrades completely with nothing harmful left behind”, Angelina explained, adding that while the shells needed a lot of preparation before being used, it was a lot less than what conventional plastics needed.Encouraged by her parents, Nitin and Aashima Arora, Angelina put together a detailed report (accompanied by pictures of the remarkably malleable and sturdy bioplastic she had made) of her innovative work. This led to her being recently awarded the second prize in chemistry at 2017’s STANSW Young Scientist Awards. The enterprising youngster now hopes that biodegradable alternatives like hers will contribute towards phasing out planet-clogging plastics and cleaning up the environment. Especially in the world’s oceans — a cause close to Angelina’s heart ever since she found thousands of tiny plastic fragments in the gut of the fish bought from local fishmongers. This significant global problem is illustrated by fact that the infamous Pacific trash vortex ( the large area of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean) is primarily made up of plastic debris that fish keep getting entangled in and dying, wreaking havoc on the region’s ecological balance. Interestingly, a similar project is under way in Egypt’s Nile University in which prawn shells are cleaned, dried, chemically treated, ground and dissolved into a solution that dries into thin films of plastic.
“If commercialized, this could really help us decrease our waste. And it could help us improve our food exports because the plastic has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties,” says Irene Samy, a professor overseeing the project said.In India, a country with an extremely long coast-line, fishermen and seafood vendors are always looking for economically viable ways to dispose of discard prawn shells. In fact, they often have to pay to get it cleared away. Researchers at at Harvard’s Wyss Institute also say that there is plenty of room for growth. Literally, in fact: the nutrients in this bio-inspired plastic makes an excellent fertilizer after its broken down. Working towards fine-tuning its commercial manufacturing, they have been able to already make fully biodegradable products such as egg cartons, chess pieces and even cell phones.