Nfld. & Labrador

Nail polish made with mussel shells? There's an offal lot of potential in fish waste

Fish processors can make a buck by making use of fish parts they normally throw away, says Kelly Hawboldt, a Memorial University engineering professor.

Memorial University professor looking at other ways of using fish parts now thrown out

This nail polish was made with mussel shells by a member of Kelly Hawboldt's team. (Kelly Hawboldt)

Fish processors can make a buck by making use of fish parts they normally throw away, says Kelly Hawboldt, a Memorial University of Newfoundland professor specializing in process engineering.

She and her team at the Ocean Frontier Institute are looking at turning waste from all kinds of fish — finfish and shellfish, both farmed and wild — into valuable products such as fuel, road salt and even nail polish.

Kelly Hawboldt wants fish processors to make more money and produce less waste.

"There's a whole bunch of value-added products in there," said Hawboldt.

"It's just a matter of figuring out the ways to sustainably and economically extract it."

Flexing their beauty mussels

Hawboldt and her team can extract high-quality oil from finfish guts for nutraceutical use and then use the waste from that process — a high-protein fish pulp — as fish meal or animal feed.

They're also developing a way for processors to quickly and sustainably remove the nub of meat left on mussel shells because the shells can be extremely valuable.

Hawboldt said they can be ground up to be used as absorbents or road salts. One member of her team, chemistry student Jennifer Murphy, even made a nail polish from the shells.

Crushed mussel shells transformed into bright, sparkly powder for nail polish - a creation of chemistry student Jennifer Murphy. (Kelly Hawboldt)

"It's really sparkly, it's very pretty," said Hawboldt.

"We presented at the Newfoundland Aquaculture Association and she was presenting all the different things like acid mine drainage treatment and road salt, and then she showed the nails. All the questions were about the nails."

Power your boat with fish oil

Hawboldt said the key for her and her team is to be able to figure out what products will work for each species, each region and each processing plant.

They often work with the Marine Institute's bioprocessing lab to figure out how to scale up their projects for actual production in plants.

Some of the materials extracted from fish guts by Hawboldt and her team. The beakers contain fish meal and extracted oil. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Producing fish oil as a high-end edible oil requires a lot of quality monitoring from the processor.

"If you're in a place where you can't really do a real high quality control, you can use that oil as a fuel," she said. "You can't put it in your car, but you could use it as a heating oil."

She said it could also be mixed with a regular fuel and be used to power a boat.

The result is a fuel with a smaller carbon footprint because it comes from a renewable resource and a waste product.

'The models are there and the profits are there.'

Hawboldt said sustainability and smaller impacts on the earth are a natural byproduct of using fish waste to make more money from our fishery.

"If you address your environmental issues, your cost always drops. Always," she said. "If you address your environmental problems and disposal issues you always address cost."

The CBC's Carolyn Stokes holds a bag of fish guts from Hawboldt's lab. Hawboldt and her team can extract oils from the guts. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Like many researchers working to build a more sustainable fishery, Hawboldt said Iceland is the leading the charge when it comes to creating valuable products from the fish waste stream.

"Places like Iceland are where we'd like to be," she said. "We have different issues than Iceland because of where our plants are, so it means that maybe we come up with modifications on solutions, but the models are there and the profits are there."


Sarah Smellie is a journalist with the Canadian Press, based in St. John's. She has previously reported for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Here & Now