Canadian researchers transform shells from the invasive and cannibalistic European green crab into a biodegradable plastic for party cups and cutlery
- Invasive European green crabs have taken over a national park from Nova Scotia
- A chemist from McGill University has started a program to turn the crabs into plastic
- Her team will harvest a chemical called chitin from the crab shells
- Chitin can be used as the basis for a plastic that is biodegradable in oceans
A team of scientists in Canada has developed a plan to turn crab bowls into plastic cups and cutlery.
The project was developed by Audrey Moores, a chemist at McGill University, in collaboration with Kejimkujik National Park Seaside in Nova Scotia, which has been struggling with a population of invasive European green crabs since the 1980s.
The European green crab is an invasive species that is sometimes called the “supervillain” crab because of its cannibalistic tendencies.
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European green crabs (pictured above) have been a major problem at Kejimkujik National Park Seaside in Nova Scotia
Female green crabs can produce more than 175,000 eggs during their lifetime, allowing the species to quickly overwhelm habitats wherever they are.
For Moores, the growing population of green crabs in Kejimkujik provided an opportunity to help protect the state park and to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans every year.
The small Moores team will harvest green crabs from the park and process their shells to extract a chemical called chitin.
Chitin can be used to make an environmentally friendly form of plastic that is broken down in landfills and in the ocean without any sustained toxic effects.
“If we can make this invasive species around the circle as a solution to the problem of plastic pollution that all oceans face today, I really think this is such a great and innovative way to find out the problem of invasive species, “Moores told the CBC.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘supervillain’ crab, female European green crabs can produce as many as 175,000 eggs per life, allowing them to reproduce very quickly
The European green crab first arrived in Kejimkujik sometime in the 1980s and destabilized the park’s ecosystem
In the past, chitin was extracted from various shellfish and crab shells by first using hydrochloric acid on the shells and then adding another mix of chemicals to catalyze the chitin into a more stable compound called chitosan.
Although the plastic produced through this process is biodegradable and a major improvement over petroleum-based petroleum, it still leaves a significant amount of chemically colored waste water.
For the Kejimkujik project, Moores devised a new and less toxic way to process chitin, in which the crabs are pulverized and mixed with a special powder.
Moores and her team catch European green crabs in Kejimkujik and process them in a laboratory to produce a biodegradable plastic that can be used for party cups, plates and cutlery
Moores will process the crab shells by pulverizing them and mixing them with a chemical powder to extract chitin, which is the basis of the more environmentally friendly plastic material
This process involves less water and fewer chemicals, resulting in very little chemical waste or run-off.
Moores says the plastic produced through this process is hard, such as glass, and the team is working on producing a softer substance that can be processed into items such as plastic party cups, plates and cutlery.
“What we know is that if we take ordinary crab shells, shrimp shells, lobster shells, we have very good results, so we are pretty sure that the green crab should not be different,” she said.
WHAT ARE EUROPEAN GREEN CRABS?
Cannibalistic European green crabs are native to the North Sea, but have spread rapidly across the ocean.
According to the researchers, these crabs have been on their way to the west coast of Canada in recent decades.
Since then, they are still a problem and they are now on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans watch list.
They are known to be tolerant of low oxygen levels and changes in salinity.
Researchers have discovered that they can absorb nutrients through their gills.