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Landfill-Bound Lobster Shells Find Home in Recycled Products

By Lesley Lammers

Ever wonder what happens to all those lobster shells after seafood processors de-shell them before packaging?  Millions of lobster shells end up in the landfill each year, while only a small portion become seafood garden compost or lobster meal, an additive in animal feed.  A few innovative academics and businesspeople took on this waste stream challenge and figured out how to create a sundry of value-added products.

Chemical and biological engineering professor David Neivandt at the University of Maine is currently making prototypes for a biodegradable golf ball comprised of ground up lobster shells.  It is estimated that 300 million golf balls are thrown away or lost in the United States annually and that golf balls take 100 to 1,000 years to decompose naturally, meaning this biodegradable golf ball could tackle two big waste streams at once.
In addition to golf balls, Neivandt and his undergraduate student, Alex Caddell, have developed a biodegradable lobster shell plant pot, containing enough calcium to help vegetables and plants grow, which is why they can be planted straight into the ground with the plant itself.  According to a 2004 study by Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences, nursery pots, flats and cell packs use up to 320 million pounds of plastic a year in the United States.  Thus these lobster shell plant pots create yet another win-win situation for both the seafood and gardening industry.

Some companies have already incorporated lobster shells into their products, like EcoSeaTile out of Mount Desert, Maine which makes tiles and drinking glass coasters out of reclaimed lobster and other seashells for home and business use.  Their tiles are comprised of over 50 percent recycled material and meet LEED standards for environmentally friendly building materials.

Beachstone in Portland, Maine caught on and is using lobster shells mixed with recycled glass to make trivets (in the shape of a lobster, of course) and is in the process of developing bathroom countertops, tiles, coffee tables, vanities, patio tabletops, and restaurant dining room tables made out of not only lobster but also mussel, clam, oyster, and scallop shells.

Dr. Robert Bayer, who has 30 years of experience in lobster research and is Executive Director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, recently told Salon that he views these new lobster waste products as a way to give the seafood industry a boost, "The whole idea is to add value to our lobster.  The more value we can extract, the more fishermen will be paid and more jobs will be created."

Lobster processors themselves are starting to understand the potential re-use of discarded shells.  East Coast Seafood, which generates a million pounds of lobster shell waste a year, is now composting all of their shells after processing.  The company has also decided to investigate the development of shipping packaging made of processed lobster shells and the conversion of lobster waste into bio-fuel.

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Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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