Researchers at McGill University have developed a new type of durable yet biodegradable plastic from the shells of crustaceans like shrimp and lobster.

Working from a Montreal lab, they have modified a substance found in crustacean shells called chitin into a polymer called chitosan, which is usually difficult to make durable or fabricate in mass quantities.

Audrey Moores, an associate professor of chemistry, told CTV Montreal that their breakthrough involves making chitosan with a longer chain. The longer the molecular chain, the more robust the material, Moores said.

The researchers have primarily been working with shrimp shells, which they grind into a fine powder. Their hope is that this new material will one day replace petroleum-based plastics.

“Globally, every year we generate six to eight million tonnes of these kinds of crustaceous waste and we're not using it for anything, really,” Moores said.

The discovery has many potential applications, such as straws, disposable cutlery, single-use plastic bags, food packaging and even for 3D printing, according to Moores.

“But we're also looking into higher end applications like biomedical applications,” she added.

“It’s hard, but at the same time … if it goes in the ocean, you will have the bugs in the ocean that are able to degrade these kinds of polymers,” Moores said. “So it's the best of both worlds, essentially.”

The team has patented their process and are now working to make the substance more malleable before attempting to get it to market.