A new solution to plastic pollution

Chemistry professor aims to transform crab shells from an invasive species into biodegradable plastic

The European Green Crab, aka “the cockroach of the sea”, is a hardy invasive species that wreaks havoc underwater.

It’s one of the 10 most unwanted species in the world, according to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which notes the voracious predator has the potential to upset the overall balance of the marine ecosystem.

Moreover, females can release up to 185,000 eggs once or twice a year.

A new McGill research project, in partnership with Parks Canada, aims to turn this invasive species challenge into a global solution to the plastics dilemma.

At present, an alarming amount of the world’s plastic ends up in the ocean.

A research team led by Audrey Moores, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at McGill’s Faculty of Science, plans to use the shells of harvested European Green Crabs to produce a new plastic that’s biodegradable in the ocean.

Moores raised more than $12,500 for the project through McGill’s crowdfunding platform, Seeds of Change. That enabled her research team to receive $37,500 from the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response Network’s Fathom Fund for the project.

Parks Canada has pledged $20,000 in support.

Moores was contacted by Parks Canada, which has been removing the invasive crabs from coastal waters in Nova Scotia. Its efforts have helped restore the ecosystem and eelgrass coverage at Kejimkujik National Park Seaside. They have also generated crustacean waste, which is something that Moore’s research lab uses for its work on bioplastics.

Crustacean shells contain chitin, a fibrous substance that can be transformed into chitosan, which is a biopolymer used in products such as sutures and wound dressings as well as cosmetics and filters for municipal waste treatment.

Moores, and research assistant Thomas Di Nardo, MSc’18, discovered a cleaner way to make chitosan and developed a new biodegradable plastic.

Chitin is found in the shells of other crustaceans as well as insects and in some fungi. Six to eight million tons of crustacean waste is generated annually around the globe, according to Moores.

The majority of the waste in Quebec and the Maritimes comes from crab and lobster shells. “This is really good quality stuff actually, so it’s very appealing to try to use that,” she says.

Her lab has used shells from crab, lobster, shrimp and insects – and in each instance, transforming the chitin into a bioplastic went well.

They’re confident they’ll achieve the same result with European Green Crabs shells, “but we need to validate that,” Moores says.

Once that’s done, the work will shift from her lab to a facility at Kejimkujik National Park Seaside where her team will develop and demonstrate the feasibility of the shell-to-chitosan transformation.

Creating sustainable bioplastics while reducing the damage caused by an invasive species would achieve two important goals at once. Another benefit could be economic.

“If we manage to really transform it into a bioplastic then hopefully, we can create a pathway for this [crustacean] waste to actually be generating revenue for the local community,” Moores says.

In parallel to this new research, her lab continues to work on its chitin-to-chitosan project. “We’re trying to develop products that we can make out of the new bioplastic,” she says.

Moores’s research focuses on green chemistry, which aims to reduce the ecological and health impacts of the chemical industry.

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