In The Matrix, Agent Smith said of humans: “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is?” According to Nova Scotia, it’s a crab.
A team of scientists in Canada have developed a plan to turn an invasive species of crustacean, affectionately known as supervillain crabs, into “plastic” cups and cutlery, using their shells to create a hardy but biodegradable material. The project, developed by Audrey Moores, a chemist at McGill University, aims to tackle the ever-growing population of European green crabs that have plagued the beaches of Kejimkujik National Park Seaside in Nova Scotia since the 1980s.
If you think being on the most wanted list is bad, European Green crabs have found themselves on the list of the 10 most unwanted species in the world, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This highly resilient coastal crab has been devastating marine environments, with an impressive reproductive rate that means a female can produce over 175,000 eggs in her lifetime, enabling the species to quickly overwhelm habitats. These voracious predators can survive outside of the water for several days, leaving in their wake a variety of intertidal victims including oysters, mussels, clams, and juvenile crabs.
The unfortunate bind invasive species find themselves in is that in doing so well they place targets on their backs from a host of environmental bodies hoping to preserve the delicate ecosystems they threaten. As such, it’s great when the eradication of an invasive species can provide some extra environmental benefit, which is exactly what the team led by Moores intends to do by protecting the state park while simultaneously reducing the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans.
Moores’ team collected “supervillain” crabs and processed their shells by crushing them to dust and combining them with a special powder. In doing this they were able to extract a chemical called chitin, which can be used as the basis for a hardy material similar to plastic. The results of this method have so far produced a very hard, almost glass-like structure, and so the project still has some way to go in creating a more moldable material, with the eventual aim being that the shells can become eco-friendly cups and cutlery.
This is the first time a method of creating “plastic” has been established that doesn’t involve the release of any harmful toxic materials both in its production and as it degrades. This differs from previous methods that use hydrochloric acid to extract chitin from crustacean shells, producing a significant volume of chemically tainted wastewater in the process.
"What we know is that if we take regular crab shells, shrimp shells, lobster shells, we have very good results, so we're fairly confident that the green crab should not be different," Moores said in a statement to CBC. "If we can make this invasive species come full circle as a solution to the plastic pollution issue that all the oceans are facing today, I really think that's going to be such a great and innovative way to figure out the invasive species problem."
You might think grinding up crabs into cups and cutlery is a little harsh, but without taking steps to return balance to delicate marine ecosystems many native species will be pushed to extinction by this aggressive invader. You won’t usually find us condoning grinding crabs into dust, but some crustaceans just want to watch the world burn.