Rubber Chicken on April Fools? Scientist Turns Feathers Into Eco-Plastic

Turning chicken feathers into eco-friendly plastics may sound like the ravings of a mad scientist, but it actually makes good sense … and thanks to a real-life boffin, it’s now a possibility.


plastic chicken

Plastics have a lot of issues–made from oil, they’re often not recycled, and they end up in landfills. You might not consider soft, fluffy chicken feathers as problematic, but billions pounds of them end up in U.S. landfills every year. Now a scientist has worked out a way to eliminate both problems, by using chicken feathers to create eco-friendly, bio-degradable plastics.

You’ve probably never thought about the chicken feathers that were once attached to the chicken we eat. But according to the American Meat Institute, the U.S. produces 36.6 billion pounds of chicken a year. And those chickens produced about three billion pounds of feathers, most of which end up in landfills. It’s from some of those feathers that Yiqi Yang from Nebraska-Lincoln University made his “feather-g-poly plastic”–a useful thermoplastic material that’s made from treated chicken feathers.

Thermoplastics are incredibly common things in today’s everyday life–variants like nylon, polyethylene, and PVC are everywhere, from our clothes to our car seats to our plastic product bottles. They are technically recyclable because they can be melted down and re-formed into new shapes, but often they’re disposed of by consumers who toss them carelessly in the trash. Biodegradable variants exist, but they–like most plastics–are often still made from oil, and are thus not exactly eco-friendly.

Yang’s success has been to access the tough protein called keratin that makes up the bulk of a chicken’s feathers by processing it with a number of chemicals including methyl acrylate (an ingredient in some existing conventional plastic formation processes). The resulting product is a film of feather-based poly-methacrylate plastic that has excellent thermoplastic properties for molding purposes and which is stronger than similar bio-sourced plastics made from oil alternatives like starch (courtesy of the structural properties of keratin) and has good water resistance.

The upshot could be plastic products made form a previously waste material instead of oil which reduce carbon footprint and the burden on landfills. There’s also the wonderfully odd notion of buying a fresh chicken from the store that’s wrapped in plastic that’s made from chicken feathers. But we do wonder whether vegans and vegetarians who shun leather products and choose plastic instead will now have to be wary of a whole new class of material….


To read more news like this, follow Kit Eaton himself and Fast Company on Twitter.

About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.