Easter is about rebirth and renewal, yet that spirit doesn't extend to all parts of the holiday. Countless Easter eggs, for example, are produced, used and then discarded every year, whether they were laid by a hen, a rabbit or a plastic mold.
Conveniently, a new research project aims to make such ovoid overkill less wasteful, and not only on Easter. Led by scientists at the U.K.'s University of Leicester, the project is developing a way to convert eggshells into bioplastics, to be used in anything from pharmaceuticals to egg cartons — and maybe even plastic Easter eggs.
This could be a boon for food producers, which often must pay to dispose of eggshells in landfills. That's why the Food and Drink iNet, a U.K. food-industry group tasked with "increasing profitability through the successful exploitation of new ideas," is funding the project. But the possibilities go well beyond that — recycled eggshells could also find a second life in biomedicine, for instance, or as filler to "bulk up" conventional plastics, potentially reducing demand for such oil-based, nonrenewable materials.
"Eggshell is classified as a waste material by the food industry, but is in fact a highly sophisticated composite," says Richard Worrall, director of the Food and Drink iNet, in a University of Leicester press release. "This could have potential benefit on many levels, both for food manufacturers and a much wider industry."
Bioplastics have been around for years, most notably the corn-based kind found in water bottles and plastic cutlery. But conventional plastic — which isn't biodegradable, and typically includes toxic petrochemicals — remains far more common around the world. The U.K. alone still uses more than 5 million tons of oil-based plastics every year, according to the British Plastics Federation. The U.S. is even more prolific, generating 31 million tons of plastic waste in 2010, according to federal data.
Scientists who specialize in "green chemistry" and sustainable materials are leading the project, which has so far received nearly £20,000 (about $31,600) from the Food and Drink iNet. Once they finalize a pre-treatment process to sterilize the eggshells, their next step will be to figure out how to extract glycosaminoglycans, or GAGs, a class of proteins in eggshells that are also used in various biomedical applications.
At the same time, they'll be developing a post-treatment process to convert the shells into a starchy plastic, and then testing that new material's strength and other mechanical properties. Ultimately, they hope to use eggshell-based plastic to produce egg cartons for retail sale, offering a high-profile example of closed-loop recycling. If successful, this could later be expanded to other plastic products, using an icon of Easter's material excess to spread the holiday's original spirit of renewal.
Of course, none of this would be happening if it didn't make financial sense — a fact highlighted by Pankaj Pancholi of the U.K. food company Just Egg, which every week uses 1.3 million eggs that leave behind roughly 11 tons of eggshells. The chance to recycle those shells would not only save money, Pancholi points out, but could also spur more breakthroughs down the road.
"If I wasn't spending the £30,000 a year on landfill costs," he says in a statement released by the university, "I could employ another worker or two part-time workers, or invest that money in R&D and innovation."