17-year-old Girl Invents Biodegradable Plastic Wrap From Shrimp

This Australian teenager discovered a way to turn prawns into plastic.

Apr 19, 2020

Parents frequently tell their children not to play with their food. But what if they could discover a game-changing invention just from doing just that? One teenager did!

While most people don’t look at their dinner and wonder what sustainable product they could engineer from leftovers, 17-year-old Angelina Arora invented a new type of biodegradable plastic made from prawn shells by doing just that. And this discovery won her the 2019 Australian Geographic Society’s Young Conservationist of the Year award. 

It all started with a science project. Angelina’s ambitious project, when she was a year-9 student at the Sydney Girls High School, was to find a biodegradable plastic that would help reduce plastic pollution. That’s because, according to National Geographic, Angelina has been interested in plastic pollution since the first time she saw her mother paying for plastic bags at the supermarket and asked the cashier why.

She began experimenting with organic materials, such as banana peels and corn starch, but they didn’t produce the desired results. One day at dinner she noticed that her prawn had a plastic-look to it, which piqued her curiosity, and led her to start experimenting.

 I looked at prawns and thought, what makes their shells look like plastic? Maybe I can take that out and use it someway and bind it to make a plastic-like material,” Angelina told National Geographic.

The teen explains that she extracted a carbohydrate from the shell, and converted it into chitosan. She then mixed it together with a protein that can be found in silk cocoons called fibroin. The “prawn plastic’’ product is a biodegradable material that is flexible, durable, and even transparent. 

The material decomposes in just 33 days, which is 1.5 million times faster than conventional plastic. Furthermore, because the exoskeleton of prawns is rich in nitrogen, when the plastic breaks down it releases this vital agricultural nutrient back into nature.

This means that Angelina’s plastic could make a great contribution to compost heaps or agricultural fields. This is particularly exciting because by recycling natural sources of nitrogen, farmers could reduce their use of conventional fertilizers, which emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. 

Her invention also won her the Innovator to Market Award in the 2018 BHP Billiton Foundation Science and Engineering Awards, a fourth-place win at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair where she competed against students from 81 countries, and a scholarship to a prestigious US university.

 “We have a tendency to think, ’Oh, I’m so young, I’m just one person, what can I do?’”  Angelina told the Australian AP,

“But you really can make a difference, and each and every one of us. If you have a dream and a passion, if you follow it on and see it through, I really do believe that everyone in our generation can make a difference.”

Angelina graduated from high school and is in the process of patenting her design. There are companies from around the world interested in manufacturing her new prawn plastic replacement.

Her incredible discovery and her personal story is inspirational, but she is not the only young environmental entrepreneur to make headlines recently.  Seventeen-year-old Fionn Ferreira from Ireland also surprised the world with an innovative technology that removes microplastics from the ocean using a mix of magnetite powder and oil.  

I think our generation is doing a good job at being aware and reducing their environmental impact.” Angelina told Perth Now. And boy, is she right. Not only are these outstanding youth reducing their own environmental impact and educating people about the environment through climate school strikes, they are also developing technologies to make it easier for everyone to live more sustainably

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HILLA BENZAKEN, CONTRIBUTOR
Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.