The substitution would allow the U.S. to cut back on its oil use, however slightly, and give poultry producers another market for the more than 3 billion pounds of leftover chicken feathers they have each year, the developers and others said. The challenge, they added, is coming up with products that manufacturers and consumers want at a price that's right.
"What works in the lab and what works commercially are two different things," said Sonny Meyerhoeffer, whose company began selling flower pots made partially from feathers last fall.
His company has patented a process for removing keratin resin from feathers for use in making plastics. Keratin, a tough protein fiber also found in fingernails, hair and horns, can replace petroleum in some cases. Right now, Meyerhoeffer's company sells flower pots that contain 40 percent bioresins, although it has been able to make ones that are completely biodegradable and made from feathers.
"It still needs a little refining," he said. "We're a year, maybe a year and a half away from getting it perfected on a commercial scale."
The federal government has thrown its support behind such work. The research arms of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Nursery & Landscape Association are working together to find ways to use keratin resin from avian feathers in plastic manufacturing. The landscape association's Horticultural Research Institute was granted the exclusive license rights for a 2006 patent for its research with keratin resin from avian feathers, the group's website says.
One hurdle for researchers is making sure that any plastic they develop performs just like petroleum-based products, so that it's easy and inexpensive for manufacturers to substitute, said Marc Teffeau, the landscape association's director of research and regulatory affairs.
"If the manufacturer has to make major changes in the production line, or changes in a mold or equipment, then it drives the cost up to use these products," he said.
Like Meyerhoeffer's Eastern Bioplastics, LLC, the landscape association's partnership has started with flower pots. It's working with a nursery supply company in Pennsylvania to develop biodegradable flower pots that can be used by nurseries and greenhouses. Teffeau said they hope to have something that can be sold within the next six months.
Feathers, which are typically ground into meal used in livestock and pet food and as fertilizer, will never be able to fully replace petroleum in the 100 billion pounds of plastic used each year in the U.S.
"If we were lucky and get all the feathers, maybe 3 billion pounds, it would only displace 3 percent of our current petroleum use," said Justin Barone, a Virginia Tech researcher who has researched techniques used to transform keratin into plastics. "Since we can't get all the feathers, we're talking at most a small percentage of the overall plastics market."