Egypt produces 20 million tons of solid waste annually, some of which is recycled or buried in landfills, much of which is piled up on roads, in water drains, or may even lie at the bottom of the sea. This is in short the garbage and plastic waste disaster that requires years to decompose under the sun. The results are usually smaller pieces of micro plastic particles eaten by fish and marine organisms only to die suffocating or via bowel obstructions. Plastic forests surround us daily, from packing wrappers to disposable plates and cups; mountains of garbage produced and thrown in just a few minutes and that increase the scale of the environmental disaster.
Despite global warnings and some national initiatives to restrict the use and circulation of disposable plastics, such efforts, unfortunately, are meagre in face of the multiplying daily production of plastic. However, offering biodegradable and environmentally friendly alternatives could offer hope for solving the problem, including an important study reported by news agencies in 2017 on the success of experiments at Nile University to produce plastic from shrimp shells.
Dr Irene Sami Fahim, assistant professor in the Industrial Engineering Department at Nile University, says her focus concern was to find alternatives to plastics that rely on natural sources rather than derivatives of fossil fuels. Over time, her interest in natural compounds that could be obtained from organic waste increased. Dr Irene did joint research work for years between Cairo and Nottingham, until she had the opportunity to carry out a joint study on plastic alternatives for Nile and Nottingham universities with the support of the Newton Mosharafa Fund, funded by the Egyptian and British governments.
"Because of my previous academic relations, it was easy to cooperate with the University of Nottingham, where we have already collaborated in several researches to produce plastic films from different materials. Yet in this project, we sought biodegradable and environmentally friendly plastic compounds. After a period of research and desk reviews, we chose the chitosan compound, which is extracted from shrimp shells and has multiple uses in pharmaceuticals. We have found the possibility of using it in the manufacture of alternative plastic models," explained Dr Irene.
According to available information, the annual volume of shrimp shells is estimated at 200,000 tons. There is no safe way to get rid of this waste and it is often disposed of in drains or landfills. In addition, there are other sources of chitosan, such as crab shells, some fish and other crustaceans and marine organisms.
Due to the weak properties of the chitosan compound, the research team made significant efforts to produce from it fully manufactured organic waste plastic. The researchers used nanoparticles extracted from rice straw and mixed them with chitosan, producing flexible plastic strips. They also benefited from cactus and eggshells to manufacture packaging boxes characterised by an appropriate degree of rigidity and with fixed dimensions.
Moreover, the research team published four papers and tested the new plastic in food packaging. It was found that the new plastic reduces the activity of bacteria and microbes on fruits compared to traditional plastic packaging, which would increase the shelf life of agricultural products. In addition, the chitosan compound does not cause any health problems for persons allergic to shrimp.
Dr Conor Snowden, senior science consultant at the British Council, said that the Newton Mosharafa Fund supports new and innovative partnerships between Egyptian and British research centres that promote Egypt's economic and social development. All projects are reviewed by peers based on the quality of research and sustainability of the partnership.
Dr Snowden adds that the generalisation of the use of biodegradable plastics in food packaging will reduce the burden of garbage, especially in emerging economies, and will reduce budgets directed to solid waste management and guide them to support educational and health service projects.
"We are proud to finance this important project, which is fully in line with our objectives in promoting research and scientific innovation in Egypt," said Shaimaa Al-Banna, head of science programmes at the British Council, on the feasibility and importance of the project.
She added that the study linked an emerging university, such as Nile University, to the University of Nottingham to introduce innovative solutions for plastic waste, which are social and economic challenges. So, the success of scientific experiments will pave the way for the manufacture and production of biodegradable bags, as a "green" alternative to plastics bags, and will contribute to prolonging the life span of food. "This approach to sustainable scientific solutions is one of our top priorities, especially as there are promising opportunities for the production and commercialisation of such eco-friendly bags."
Obstacles on the road
Dr Irene remembers the challenges faced during the project. Unusually, she had to think about the economic viability and availability of shrimp shells to establish an industry from waste. Other challenges faced by the research team included bureaucratic obstacles to approving project funding, the difficulty of registering the product as a patent, and protecting the rights of researchers in the product created. Dr Irene also had to select her team from different scientific disciplines, such as chemistry, physics, electronic engineering, industrial engineering and technology management, as well as cooperating with researchers in Britain in the fields of food science, health and chemical analysis.
“In fact, these challenges were opportunities to think differently and communicate with different groups and disciplines in the community,” says Dr Irene. “Especially that the research environment often does not exceed the limits of laboratories and lecture halls. It is enough to imagine the visits to farms and fish traders, agricultural waste and shrimp shells collection centres, as well as plastic production plants and the engineering from of raw materials used in industrial production. These different experiences greatly enhanced the success of the project.”
Wasted wealth in garbage
About the next steps of the project, Dr Irene says that she will conduct research for a year and a half, hoping to have an industrial production test machine in place to convert the mixture of chitosan and organic matter additives into a usable compound for industrial production. This stage requires many engineering and chemical experiments to reach plastic products at a competitive price compared to existing products.
Dr Irene sees countless paths to the production of plastic alternatives, from the inclusion of three-dimensional printing technology in plastics manufacturing to the use of renewable and rich sources of primary raw materials, such as used coffee grounds, banana peels, cottonwood and much other wasted wealth.