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A Chicken in Every Pot: Finding New Uses for Feathers

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This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

Chicken feathers are useful, and not just to a chicken. Some go into pillows, coats and other products. But countless chicken feathers go to waste.

In the United States, billions of chickens are produced yearly. Most of their feathers are thrown away.

But instead of being buried in landfills, some feathers could find a future in plastics.

Scientists in the Washington area have been working with keratin, the main substance in poultry feathers. One of the products they have developed is a flowerpot. It may look like other flowerpots. But the container breaks down in the earth within one to five years. And as it breaks down, it naturally releases nitrogen into the soil.

The flowerpots are made by reducing chicken feathers to a powder. Then the powder is formed into pellets and shaped into pots.

The environmentally friendly flowerpot is the work of two researchers. Walter Schmidt is with the Agricultural Research Service, part of the United States Agriculture Department. Masud Huda is with the Horticultural Research Institute, a private organization.

The institute's research director, Mark Teffeau, says the flowerpot works well for vegetables and small flowering plants like geraniums and impatiens.

Walter Schmidt has been working to find uses for chicken feathers since the nineteen nineties. Progress in two thousand two showed that plastic made from feathers could be formed like other plastics.

He says feathers are much stronger and last longer than another plant material, cellulose.

WALTER SCHMIDT: "Feathers are about eight times as strong as cellulose. By design, feathers are strong and durable. And the other part about it is if feathers were twice as heavy, or half as strong, then birds couldn't fly.”

He points out that traditional flowerpots made from petroleum-based plastics can last much longer. But he wonders if there is really a need. He says most flowerpots are never re-used.

WALTER SCHMIDT: "Why would you want a plastic that you use for a year to last for two hundred years? It makes no sense. You want to match the product with the use."

Walter Schmidt and Masud Huda are now adding another chicken product to their flowerpots -- chicken waste. The waste will add more nutrients to the soil as the pot breaks down. The scientists say they hope their flowerpot will be on the market in a year or two.

And that's the VOA Special English Agriculture Report, written by Jerilyn Watson with Zulima Palacio. You can find transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and archives of our reports at I’m Steve Ember.