Nfld. & Labrador·WAVES OF CHANGE

Fishing for an alternative to plastic? Fish guts could be a green solution

Chemistry student Courtney Laprise has been cooking up a solution to single-use plastics. Her main ingredient? Oil from fish guts.

MUN chemistry student working on experiments to lessen dependence on petroleum products

Courtney Laprise is a 23-year-old master's student in chemistry at Memorial University. She is experimenting with fish oil to develop a plastic alternative for things like single-use shopping bags. (Jane Adey/CBC)

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Tucked away in a fifth-floor laboratory in Memorial University's chemistry building, Courtney Laprise works on experiments she hopes might reduce our dependence on oil. 

"I believe that for every chemical that is out there that is derived from petroleum, there's a way to make it green and maybe from biomass," said Laprise. 

The 23-year-old master's student is focused on developing a plastic alternative made from a good ol' Newfoundland ingredient — fish guts. Laprise works with oil extracted from fish heads and intestines.

She performs several reactions on the oil using chemicals and then casts the substance onto a pertri dish. Then she puts the dish into an oven and waits. She admits that for a few months the results had been disappointing.

Laprise is using fish oil extracted from fish heads and fish intestines to try to develop a more environmentally friendly plastic-like material. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"I had only gotten, like, liquid stuff. Nothing was solid," said Laprise.

And then, one day, her efforts paid off.

"I scraped if off my petri dish and it was solid.… It was a little bit stretchy, I could pull it a little bit, but it was solid," explained Laprise.

This is what the fish oil looks like after it has undergone chemical reactions and before it's put in the oven to solidify. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"I was so excited, I actually ran out into the hallway and started screaming, like, 'Oh my god, I made it, I made it!"'

Now that Laprise has the recipe for a fish-based plastic alternative, she'll perform tests to understand its mechanical properties, the strength of the substance. 

On top of that, she'll conduct biodegradation studies to see how the plastic-like material will break down in both freshwater and seawater. 

Laprise says she's focused on finishing her thesis at the moment, but has had some queries from companies who are interested in what she's doing. New product development excites her and so does the possibility of economic growth in small towns with fish plants.

This is how the fish oil looks once it has undergone chemical reactions and has been heated in the oven. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"There's a large amount of waste, and a lot of these companies, they have to pay to get rid of this waste and it would be awesome if they could use this for another purpose," said Laprise.

"You could have a plant right next to it making these materials so … you know,  more jobs in these communities."

Laprise sees ocean-friendly products and initiatives as a natural fit for Newfoundland and Labrador. She'd like to see more people focus on the environment at their doorstep. 

"As someone from Newfoundland you have a connection to the ocean, you know, you want to protect it and it's very much a part of everyday life here. It's very promising, I think, and it's very exciting."

Laprise believes there can be many green alternatives found for chemicals derived from petroleum. (Jane Adey)

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About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.

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