Researchers have developed ways to substitute chicken feathers for petroleum in some plastic products, and at least two companies are working to bring items ranging from biodegradable flower pots to office furniture to market.
The substitution would allow the U.S. to cut back on its oil use, however slightly, and give poultry producers another market for the more than 3 billion pounds of leftover chicken feathers they have each year, the developers and others said. The challenge, they added, is coming up with products that manufacturers and consumers want at a price that's right.
"What works in the lab and what works commercially are two different things," said Sonny Meyerhoeffer, whose company began selling flower pots made partially from feathers last fall.
His company has patented a process for removing keratin resin from feathers for use in making plastics. Keratin, a tough protein fiber also found in fingernails, hair and horns, can replace petroleum in some cases. Right now, Meyerhoeffer's company sells flower pots that contain 40 percent bioresins, although it has been able to make ones that are completely biodegradable and made from feathers.
"It still needs a little refining," he said. "We're a year, maybe a year and a half away from getting it perfected on a commercial scale."
The federal government has thrown its support behind such work. The research arms of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Nursery & Landscape Association are working together to find ways to use keratin resin from avian feathers in plastic manufacturing. The landscape association's Horticultural Research Institute was granted the exclusive license rights for a 2006 patent for its research with keratin resin from avian feathers, the group's website says.
One hurdle for researchers is making sure that any plastic they develop performs just like petroleum-based products, so that it's easy and inexpensive for manufacturers to substitute, said Marc Teffeau, the landscape association's director of research and regulatory affairs.
"If the manufacturer has to make major changes in the production line, or changes in a mold or equipment, then it drives the cost up to use these products," he said.
Like Meyerhoeffer's Eastern Bioplastics, LLC, the landscape association's partnership has started with flower pots. It's working with a nursery supply company in Pennsylvania to develop biodegradable flower pots that can be used by nurseries and greenhouses. Teffeau said they hope to have something that can be sold within the next six months.
Feathers, which are typically ground into meal used in livestock and pet food and as fertilizer, will never be able to fully replace petroleum in the 100 billion pounds of plastic used each year in the U.S.
"If we were lucky and get all the feathers, maybe 3 billion pounds, it would only displace 3 percent of our current petroleum use," said Justin Barone, a Virginia Tech researcher who has researched techniques used to transform keratin into plastics. "Since we can't get all the feathers, we're talking at most a small percentage of the overall plastics market."
Paul Bredwell, vice president of environmental programs for U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, said the industry welcomes alternative uses for the feathers left behind in processing poultry and that it gave money to Virginia Tech in 2009 to support related research. Feathers now sell for about $450 per ton, but that could increase if demand from the plastics industry increases.
"I think the possibility is there," Bredwell said.
Development of new products has been slow because companies like Harrisonburg, Va.-based Eastern Bioplastics don't have the same resources for research and development as the giant petroleum companies, said Barone, who is a partner in the firm.
Meyerhoeffer said Eastern Bioplastics has invested "millions" of dollars in the work but he declined to be more specific. The landscape association's partnership has spent about $400,000, Teffeau said.
Whether products from feathers can be made and sold for less than petroleum-based ones depends on what's made, Barone said.
"Some processes require us to clean feathers more and that adds cost to the process," he said. "If we don't have to clean as much, it will be less then petroleum. If we have to clean them more, it could be comparable or slightly higher."
Eastern Bioplastics sells a case of 240 4-inch containers for $24 and a case of 320 3-inch containers for $20, according to the company's website.
In comparison, officials at Goode Greenhouse in Des Moines said they typically pay less than $15 for 240 petroleum-based 4-inch containers. They don't buy 3-inch containers.
Bill Weichman, landscape manager for Shenandoah, Iowa-based Earl May garden centers, said while he has heard of the feather-based pots, he didn't know that much about them. He said he would want to see samples before making a purchase and he would want to know how quickly the pots would biodegrade. They would have to last while on a shelf but break down fast once planted.
"Then there is the cost," Weichman said. "It would need to be reasonably comparable to similar products. Then we'd see how the customers feel about it."