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Crabby plastics

New bio-plastics derived from the polymers found in crushed crab shells are environmentally friendly and non-toxic as well as soft, tactile and very expressive design materials for use in electronics.    

Based in London, product designer Jeongwon Ji is challenging the convention of streamlined, mass-produced plastics for electronics through her experiments with the chitin polymers that are extracted from crushed Chinese Mitten Crab shells. Chitin polymers are the main components in the exoskeletons of insects, lobsters and crabs for example and as a raw material, these polymers are incredibly strong and flexible. Further to this, the Chinese Mitten Crab is a highly invasive species in the River Thames as well as in many other UK rivers. Jeongwon Ji saw the potential in this unwanted local resource and began, through a process of trial and error, to mix the chitin polymer extracted from Chinese Mitten Crab shells with small amounts of glycerine. The mixture is then poured into wooden moulds, compressed with water and cured to create a new type of bio-plastic.

The production time is longer than that of conventional plastic because water is used instead of artificial chemicals in the curing process. But the extra wait produces some fantastic results because although the wooden moulds are geometric, these bio-plastics begin to curve and distort during the process of curing. The resulting materials are unique, tactile, organic forms with an expressive quality and a material unpredictability not normally associated with streamlined, mass-produced plastics. Furthermore, these new bio-plastics are non-toxic, making them safer for the environment and those who handle them during the manufacturing process.

Some products Jeongwon Ji has created with her ‘crabby’ plastics include an alarm clock, a humidifier, a computer trackpad, a torch, an electrical wall socket and even a WiFi router.

Plastics have the notorious reputation of being bad for the environment, containing harmful chemicals and filling up landfill sites. But material innovators are beginning to alter the performance and, perhaps more importantly, the perception of plastics. From new bio-plastics made from the shells of an invasive species to Gamplanken cladding tiles made from 100% recycled plastic, material innovators are creating plastic products that are healthier and more environmentally friendly. Hopefully they will also inspire meaningful changes and material inspirations in the future.

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