The millions of tons of disposable diapers that Americans throw away every year account for about 1.5 percent of total municipal solid waste. At the same time, the commercial fishing industry catches and throws away more than 20 million tons of unwanted marine wildlife each year. Food scientist Srinivasan Damodaran at the University of Wisconsin may have found a way for one waste problem to help solve another: Put this “sea-kill” to an environmentally friendly use. By attaching water-binding molecules to protein extracts from the discarded fish, he has created a gel that absorbs as much as 600 times its weight in water-making it perfect for disposable diapers. What’s more, Damodaran says the protein nature of these gels makes the diapers biodegradable, reducing the burden on landfills. Damodaran says under the right conditions, these new gels would biodegrade in less than 30 days. Protein-based diapers would hold more weight than biodegradable diapers already on the market, which use starch. And since the leftover fish are virtually free, the diapers would be cheap to produce. Damodaran is working on other uses for the gel, including time-release herbicide delivery.
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