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Feather cups?

April 28, 2013
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

For as long as there has been mankind, there has been bird-kind. In fact the birds were made just a bit sooner. I have always had a fascination with birds and their feathers, flight, etc.

So as I began to formulate a column for this week it appeared as though it was headed in a "What makes birds special" direction. But as I continued to think about how important feathers were to birds I started more to thinking about the many purposes that birds have for their feathers. That would be a good column topic, I thought.

But thinking about bird uses for feathers got me to thinking about the many uses that man has had for feathers. Another good topic.

Feathers have been used as adornment for ages. They've been on our heads from the very earliest headdresses to the beautiful ladies plume-feather hats of Victorian times. Quill-feather pens were some of the earliest writing instruments. Down feathers formed the basis of warmth in comforters and vests in yesteryear, as well as, today. The list goes on and on.

But I read with interest the other day of a new use for feathers. The new use was plastic.

Actually, I learned that researchers have known how to make plastic from feathers for quite some time. We can make plastic out of many things besides oil but the problem has always been the longevity of it. The longevity is a problem on both sides of the plastic fence so to speak. Petroleum based plastic can last too long and cause big problems. Think of a Styrofoam coffee cup. It is used to hold coffee for maybe 10-15 minutes and discarded. Someone can dig up a Styrofoam cup from a landfill 200 years from now, wash it out, and reuse it. This is really an example of a lousy design. If you really need it for such a short time, then why not make it out of something that degrades quickly? Save the long lasting stuff for other more important things. It does have to last and be waterproof for the length of time the drink is in it though and that has always presented the problem.

To make the new plastic, the researchers started with chicken and turkey feathers that had been cleaned and pulverized into a fine dust. They then added chemicals that made the keratin molecules join together to form long chains - a process called polymerization.

The plastic they made was stronger than similar materials made from starch or soy proteins, and it stood up to water. The new material is a thermoplastic. "We can use heat and melt it to make different products," said Reddy. Heating it to a modest - for industrial manufacturing - 170 degrees Celsius allows the plastic to be molded into some desired shape, and it can be melted and remolded many times. Unlike most thermoplastics, which are petroleum-based, chicken-feather plastic uses no fossil fuels, according to the researchers.

The feather-based plastic could be used for all kinds of products, from plastic cups and plates to furniture. In addition to making use of feathers that would otherwise end up in landfills, it is highly biodegradable.

And listen to this - nearly 3 billion pounds of chicken feathers are plucked each year in the United States - and most end up in the trash. I can't even wrap my mind around how big a pile of feathers that represents!

I know nothing is perfect and that there are likely many obstacles that must be overcome before we start drinking out of chicken feather cups. But watch for it.

And with all the other ideas that I had for feather columns, be watching for those to show up as column topics in the weeks to follow.



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