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The first thing to know about feathers is that they are strong — very, very strong. Feathers are eight times stronger than wood. Even when you dip one in liquid nitrogen, and take a hammer to it, nothing happens. And it was that experiment that got Dr. Walter Schmidt thinking.
Dr. Schmidt has been working for the past 20 years on ways to turn feathers into useful products. Feathers, Schmidt explains, are made from the protein keratin, and that protein structure is what makes a feather so strong. Keratin is the same protein that forms our skin, nails and hair, and he says, it has a lot of economic value.
Schmidt estimates there are $2.5 billion pounds of feathers available each year, as a byproduct of the poultry industry. Their value is similar to that of polypropylene, a type of plastic, which is 6 cents per pound. After crunching the numbers, Schmidt says that works out to $2 billion of natural resources that aren't being harvested.
Technically, the feathers are being harvested. They're bought up by the companies that make dog and cat food, sometimes livestock feed as well. You know when it says the food includes 'animal byproducts,' that can mean feathers. This is banned in Europe, but not here in the United States. And while these feathers are not going to waste, Schmidt says, we could be using them in a much smarter way.
His principal discovery is that feathers, when ground down and combined with a naturally occurring polymer (in place of plastic) can create a functional, fully biodegradable flowerpot.
Why a flowerpot?
Mark Teffeau, head of research for the Horticultural Research Institute, says though the horticulture industry purports to be a 'green industry' there is a lot of plastic consumption and waste.
HRI has been working with Dr. Schmidt and the USDA for 5 years to license the feather technology patents, and continue to develop products. Flowerpots are typically made from cheap plastic, Teffeau says, and thrown away to avoid cross contamination between plant species. Biodegradable pots would be a great way to cut back on plastic waste.
Over time, microbes in the soil will consume the keratin in the pots, effectively acting as fertilizer, Dr. Schmidt explains. "The microbes see it and say 'mmm protein! And eat it up!"
While the flowerpots fulfill so many of the horticultural industry's needs, there's still no commercial partner who's come to take this idea to the big time. While shopping their pots around, Teffeau and Schmidt have found other potential uses for keratin products. They could make building materials, fishing equipment, fertilizer pellets, and BB pellets.
Schmidt says he's confident this idea is too good to be ignored. There's a big, bright future ahead, he says, and it's all made out of feathers.
[Music: "Chicken Strut" by The Meters from Meters Anthology]
Photos: Feather Pots