Conventional plastic is used basically everywhere that humans exist, but it’s extremely damaging to our environment. It is particularly harmful because it is not biodegradable, meaning that animals cannot break it down, so it stays in our environment and often becomes plastic dust and can end up in our oceans.
Aagje Hoekstra, a Dutch scientist, has developed an alternative to plastic that she makes out of dead beetles. She makes the innovative and biodegradable material by melting and fusing together the shells of dead darkling beetles, whose shells are made of chitin. In a chemical process, she converts the chitin into chitosan, a chemical with stronger bonding properties.
Currently, Hoekstra uses the “insect plastic” to create jewellery and lamps. It is a painstaking process, with one thin sheet of the material requiring the shells from 2,500 dead beetles. She handpicks the beetles, converts them to chitosan, and presses the shells together using heat. It took her six months to develop the plastic in its current formula, but she is still researching and developing better bioplastic formulas.
She hopes her work will lead to the material being an alternative for normal plastic. The beetle plastic is not only better because it is biodegradable, but because the animals are a byproduct of mealworms, which are farmed for pet food and bait and are otherwise thrown away. Hoekstra is a pioneer in this field, but hopefully bioplastics like those she has developed will become common alternatives for plastic in the future.