Nursery pots made of polyolefins blended with keratin resin made from chicken feathers may be a reality by next spring.
We are looking to do a limited pot product launch for the spring 2011 gardening season, said K. Marc Teffeau, research director at the Horticultural Research Institute, the research affiliate of the Washington-based American Nursery & Landscape Association. HRI is in the process of incorporating a for-profit [limited liability company] to handle the licensing of the formulations to toll compounders. We are not in the pot business. We are the developers and licensors of the keratin-based resin.
In partnership with the Department of Agriculture, HRI has been developing formulations for keratin resins made from chicken feathers and manufacturing prototype biodegradable nursery containers and pots since 2006 at the USDA lab in Beltsville, Md.
HRI and USDA are also working with toll compounder, processor and extruder Adell Plastics Inc. in Baltimore, four nursery pot manufacturers in Pennsylvania and a poultry processor in Delaware.
We are trying to do the marriage of the material with the market, said Teffeau. Everyone is after the Holy Grail a product that is 100 percent biodegradable or one you can plant in the ground and have it decompose.
We want to take renewable resources to make polymers and design products to last as long as they are going to be used, said Walter Schmidt, a research chemist at the Beltsville lab, part of USDA's Agricultural Research Service. If you use something for a year, you should make it last for a year. Polymers are great, but most mass-produced plastics stuff has no half-life designed into it. Making stuff to last 20-200 years when you are going to use it for five minutes is an inefficient use of our resources.
You want a flower pot to last just as long as people are going to use it, said Schmidt, who first began researching the possibility of making plastics from chicken feathers in 1998. He previously had found that feather fiber alone or in combination with wood pulp can be made into paper, and he helped develop the technology to clean the feathers and separate them into fibers.
Feathers, composed predominately of the natural biopolymer keratin protein, represent a potentially large continuously renewable resource. Roughly 3 billion pounds of chicken feathers are generated annually in the U.S. from roughly 9 billion farm-raised broiler chickens.
There are plenty of feathers, said Schmidt. About 20,000 pounds of feathers are produced per hour at a poultry processing plant.
The majority of those feathers today, roughly 80 percent, are sent to landfills, with the rest used for feather meal, an animal feed product, or sent to landfills.
But ground into powder and turned into resin, it represents a potential market of 6 billion to 9 billion pounds given that the initial keratin/polyolefin pellet mixtures for the pots will be one-third to one-half keratin and the remainder polyolefin.
We want to bring a new chemistry to the market, Teffeau said. The end products will not only help solve the environmental problem of creating biodegradable plastics, but they will also provide a cost-effective commercial use for feathers.
But we know that it has to be cost-competitive and that the performance of the polymer and the process has to be similar to what companies are already doing, he said.
The researchers have developed and looked at more than 50 formulations in their efforts to bring their first resins to market, and have developed pots that degrade within one-to-five years.
We have successfully developed formulations for injection molding, said Teffeau. The first products will be molded from a mix of polyolefin and keratin with the long-term goal being a pot made completely from keratin in chicken feathers, he said.
He said HRI is also developing blow molding formulations, as many nursery pots are blow molded. Blow molded pots use more expensive resins, but use less of the resins, Teffeau said. Injection molded pots are stronger, but weigh more.
The feathers are ground into a powder, and then made into a resin. Because of the different weight of the feathers, we have had to use different types of feeders to get the flow right, said Masud Huda, a polymer chemist and research associate with HRI.
Glycerin also is used in some of the patented formulations as a processing aid and to bind the material. In addition, USDA and HRI are experimenting with adding poultry manure so that the flowers get nutrient from the pot itself.
As we prove out additional formulations, we will look at adding other agricultural waste products [to] move toward a 100 percent biodegradable and 'plantable' pot. The waste will add more nutrients to the soil, Teffeau said.
To speed commercialization, HRI and USDA are working with a poultry processor to design a prototype plant to efficiently produce the resin from the chicken feathers. Teffeau said the best working economic model is co-locating the pelletizing plant at the poultry firm's location because the more you handle the material, the higher the price, said Teffeau.
Chicken processors want a production system that takes all the feathers they have after processing, because the economies of this depends on them selling everything, USDA's Schmidt said. They don't want to have to use a huge amount of manpower, and the cost of making the resin has to be less than the cost of turning the feathers into feather meal.
Teffeau agreed: The poultry industry is a conservative business model and is very much risk-averse, so we have to show them the figures and prove to them that this works.
But, Schmidt said, the people who process resin don't care how it is made. They care about the performance they can get from it, the cost, whether the properties of the resin meet the properties of the end product and is it price-competitive. Their loyalty is to the resins that work.
If one poultry processor starts making money from feathers and the financial return is lucrative, the others can't afford not to do it.
And if feathers are used to make pots, other applications will follow, they believe. Once we get a product that shows the potential for what we are doing, a lot of applications will come out, Teffeau said.
Schmidt agreed, saying feathers are roughly eight times as strong as cellulose. Schmidt and HRI's Huda have made prototype automotive dashboards and other interior car parts from the resin, he added.