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February 2006
Where Do All the Feathers Go?

The Satya Interview with Walter Schmidt

Each year in the U.S., as billions of chickens are killed for food, their feathers are removed. The broiler chicken industry alone produces two to three billion pounds of feathers a year. What happens to all these feathers? Seeking an answer to this, Sangamithra Iyer spoke with Walter Schmidt, an animal by-products research chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about his work in collaboration with the Featherfiber Corporation in researching economically viable uses for feathers.

What is typically done with the feathers from chickens raised for meat?
In Europe they are all landfilled. In the U.S., they use a technique that autoclaves the feathers at high temperatures, [turning them into a] brown material used as animal feed [for livestock, cats and dogs]. It’s not very nutritious and it costs about as much money to make as what they sell it for, so it’s not a very profitable operation.

You’ve researched alternate uses for feathers. How and why did you get involved with this?
I was trying to figure out why different forms of collagen in tendons and skin have different properties. Then I wanted to compare something to collagen, so I tried [keratin] from feathers. When I ground it up—which is really difficult to do because feathers are so tough—it felt just like wood pulp. So I [thought] you should be able to make paper from it, and I did. Cellulose is much weaker than feather fiber and it takes 15 minutes on a machine to turn wood into pulp, while it would take two hours to pulp the feather fiber. Since feathers are much more durable, you could recycle [feather pulp] paper more times. [But still], even if all the feathers were used to make paper, it would only be about three percent of the paper produced in the U.S.—you wouldn’t replace paper from wood pulp.

What else can you make from feather fibers?
We made air and water filters that can filter [particulates] and some heavy metals. These are prototype products, not commercial products. There is only one commercial product right now—a disposable flowerpot. But it is possible to make insulation and [termite resistant] synthetic wood out of feathers. The fibers can also [make a] biodegradable plastic that can be used in agriculture [as a weed control]. And diapers. [Typically] diaper fibers are mixed with a super slurper chemical that absorbs 20 times its weight in water. The problem is that diaper fibers are compressible, and the weight of the kid can squeeze out the water, and it leaks out the side. Feather fibers are not [compressible] so the water [wouldn’t] squeeze out.

Dr. Misra at the University of Nevada, Reno, was working on using feather fiber to concentrate radioactive metals [for] nuclear plants that store low-level nuclear waste. The idea is that if you had a way of concentrating the nucleotides, it would [require] less [trucks] to transport it to Utah or Nevada. Because it cost so much to transport, you save a humongous amount of money.

Can you walk us through the process, from collecting the feathers from the birds, cleaning them, and extracting what you need from them?
Basically the feathers are removed in a trough of water. Feathers come out of the production plant wet with [chicken excrement], some blood and other stuff on them. The feathers have a really high surface area and will absorb proteins from the material, and microbes grow on the proteins. If you clean the feathers within eight hours after they are harvested, then it is pretty efficient. If you wait longer than that it is not cost-effective. We use a 70 percent ethanol wash, which denatures the proteins so they don’t stick to the feathers anymore. And then we dry [them] and they become light and fluffy like down feathers. Then we use an air turbulence flow process to take the feather fibers from the quill. Once you have those fibers you can use them to make anything you want from them.

Your work seeks to find an environmentally and economically sound alternative to what happens to chicken feathers. But massive chicken production to begin with is environmentally unsound. What would you say to an ethical vegetarian/vegan, who will not consume animal products at all, about the use of feathers in these products?
This is interesting, because poultry also produce manure.

You could make things from feathers, if chickens were just free-ranging and molting and you could harvest the feathers that way. But the big thing is that the volume of feathers [from the broiler industry] is just too huge, not to do anything with them.

The question is more, would the consumption of these feather products be directly supporting the poultry industry? Will they profit from the feathers as well?
What probably is going to happen is profits from the poultry industry are not going to go up, but prices are going to come down. It’s just going to get more competitive.

The way the poultry industry makes money is by undercutting the price of everybody else. They make money not because of a high profit margin per bird, but because they have so many birds. Typically for a five-pound chicken, the profit on that chicken is two or three cents a pound. A five-pound chicken [has] about a third of a pound of feathers. [If the feathers were sold] at 50 cents a pound, that would be about the same as the profit per bird as the meat from the chicken.

Once one of the poultry industries starts making money by selling the feathers, they’ll have such a competitive advantage over everybody else.



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