Are feathers native materials

Raw material - we eat tons of poultry - but what happens to the feathers when the chicken is plucked?

We eat tons of poultry - but what happens to the feathers when the chicken is plucked?

Chicken nuggets, chicken legs and breasts are popular. The Swiss population consumes over 100,000 tons of poultry every year; a good half of it comes from local chickens. But these are not just made of tender meat. A considerable mountain of feathers accrues during slaughter.

In the past these were used to stuff pillows and duvets. Today it is mostly goose down that is used to make duvets and winter jackets. Because these warm much better than chicken feathers.

So what do you do with all the by-products of our meat consumption? In many countries the feathers are burned, which leads to a considerable amount of pollutants. Storage in landfills is also not exactly harmless because pathogens can get into the groundwater.

In Switzerland and most European countries, however, it has been recognized that it is a valuable raw material. Chicken feathers mainly consist of keratin, a fibrous protein that can also be found in hair, fingernails and horn, among other things.

In Switzerland, Centravo, headquartered in Lyss, is the central receiving point for all kinds of slaughter by-products. Large poultry producers such as Micarna and Bell also deliver the feathers to Centravo AG after slaughter. According to the media office, around 5500 tons of it are produced each year.

Together with other by-products from the meat industry, such as inedible offal, hair or horn, feathers are classified in category 3 in the classification of slaughterhouse waste. This means that they may not be used for human consumption, but may be used for animal feed or for other suitable applications. Centravo does not process the feathers itself, but delivers them to nearby foreign countries, especially to Germany.

Nice shiny dog ​​fur

One of the companies that they know how to use sensibly is the Dutch company Sonac, which produces raw materials for animal feed and fertilizer. Chicken feathers are also welcome for these products. "It is a valuable and sustainable source of protein," says Sonac employee Carine van Vuure.

Because the feathers are a by-product, both greenhouse gas emissions and land consumption are significantly lower compared to vegetable proteins. To ensure safety for use as animal feed, the raw material must first be sterilized at high heat.

Then it is processed into feather meal and chemically modified. In what is known as hydrolysis, the material reacts with water molecules and enriches itself with hydrogen atoms. "This makes the feather meal easy to digest," explains the specialist.

In this form, it is added to pet food - especially canned dogs. The proportion is around five percent, but varies depending on the type and age of the dog for which the food is intended. “The addition is important for a healthy, shiny coat,” says van Vuure. Pets would have a natural need for the protein component cystine, which is contained in feather keratin.

Concentrated feed for farm animals - cattle, cows, pigs and poultry - also often contains hydrolyzed feather meal, but only on other continents. The admixture is not permitted in the EU or Switzerland. The processed feather meal is also fed to farmed fish, especially salmon. Up to 15 percent can be added to the fish feed. And the product is also very useful as an organic plant fertilizer, says the specialist. "It contributes to the fertility of the arable land and promotes beneficial microorganisms."

Plastic without petroleum

In addition to the animal feed and fertilizer industry, researchers from various areas also have the cheap, organic raw material in their sights. In Switzerland, for example, the “Plastics Innovation Competence Center” in Freiburg is doing experiments with chicken feathers. Institute director Rudolf Koopmans would like to use it to make plastics that are recyclable and organically degradable. For example, they could be used instead of aluminum foil in beverage cartons.

These seal the packaging so that it is suitable for liquids. Although there are already separate collection points for the recycling of beverage cartons, only the carton is recycled. Because the aluminum foil is glued to a plastic sheet and is not available in its pure form, it is burned and is only useful as an energy source in cement works.

Koopmans and his team would now like to develop a uniform material that is completely recyclable. He can also imagine that feather creatine is processed into synthetic fibers. These could then be used for medical plasters or to cover paper cups. The researcher emphasizes that development still takes time. And in order for the products to be marketable, the price, above all, has to drop drastically.

Koopmans has been involved with plastics for many years. "These are ingenious materials," says the scientist. "But if you carelessly throw away the petroleum-based plastics and they end up in nature, ecological problems arise." With his 20 or so employees, he has set himself the goal of producing plastic from various natural materials, for example for food packaging. They should be recyclable and organically degradable.

Clothes and fuel

In foreign laboratories, too, research is being carried out into ways of recycling waste products from chicken fattening and egg production. Scientists at the University of Nebraska in the USA are trying to make composite materials from them. The springs are designed to increase the strength of plastics and at the same time reduce their weight. Fiber composite plastics are used, for example, in the interior cladding of suburban trains, ships, designer chairs and water slides.

In the future, clothes could also be made from feathers. The flexible, light consistency with the air pockets would be a good prerequisite for producing textiles without fossil raw materials.

There is no shortage of other ideas for utilizing creatine: researchers want to use it to make biodiesel, filters that remove chemicals from sewage, or impregnants for cotton fabrics to make them fireproof. With around 45 billion chickens slaughtered every year around the world, there would probably be enough feathers for a variety of uses.