Salvation in a Shrimp Shell: Smart Biomaterials for the Anthropocen

Authors: Elizabeth Johnson*, University of Durham
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Anthropocene, Coastal and Marine
Keywords: Biomaterials, Bioeconomy, Anthropocene, Oceans, Plastics
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Ambassador Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2003, an article in the Critical Review of Food Science and Nutrition declared chitosan [KY-to’-san], a biomaterial processed primarily from the discarded shells of the shrimping industry, “the undisputed biomolecule of great potential.” Since the early 2000s, chitosan has indeed become a valuable resource in biotech, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture, with wide applicability. But scientists suggest it holds even greater potential as they examine its capacity to solve a wide range of ecological and human health issues, including antibiotic resistance, heavy metal pollution, high cholesterol, and cancer. Most promisingly, perhaps, chitosan is a key component in the production of Shrilk, a polymer manufactured at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for bioinspired design. Shrilk combines chitosan with silk polymers to produce a bioplastic that is both durable and biodegradable.

Chitosan is presented as a solution to human health and environmental crises alike. Scientists describe it as a cure-all not only for what ails ecological systems and human bodies, but also production processes. By transforming the waste product of the shrimping industry into a productive commodity while simultaneously promising the end to dominance of petroleum-based plastics, chitosan appears to solve for the woes of the Anthropocene. With a focus on the material design of Shrilk, this paper critically examines how chitosan and these narratives of salvation circulate in conjunction with the promissory nature of financial capital. I suggest that the case of chitosan prompts useful reflection on how political ecology might engage in the hopeful circulation of biomaterials in and for the Anthropocene.

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