Agricultural Research Service scientists who have developed a method to turn chicken feathers into plastic products are continuing to bring the technology closer to the marketplace.

ARS chemist Walter Schmidt developed the technology to clean feathers and separate them into chopped fibers and quill pieces. Now, Schmidt and fellow ARS chemist Justin Barone have developed and applied for a patent for a process to convert cleaned and chopped feather material into plastic products on a laboratory scale. Schmidt and Barone work in ARS' Environmental Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.

According to Barone, the material is made on traditional plastics processing equipment using chopped chicken feathers and other easily obtainable, naturally derived materials. The feather-derived plastic can be molded just like any other plastic and has properties very similar to commodity plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene. This makes the feather-derived plastic a unique material for packaging or any other application where high strength and biodegradability are desired.

Previous research by Schmidt and Barone found feather fiber could be added into currently used plastics to make composites. The fibers strengthen the plastic components, and reduce the weight of the material. Currently, the additives and fillers used in plastics by the automobile industry, for example, add significant weight to car parts. Using feather fiber is a viable alternative to these additives.

Approximately 4 billion pounds of feathers are generated each year during the poultry production process, resulting in a serious, solid agricultural waste problem. This new application not only is a solution to an environmental problem, but also cost-effectively enhances the commercial and economic value of feathers.