Wednesday, September 3, 2008


This is the first in my new Organicool series. This will be my forum to showcase some fun ways to live a more eco-friendly life. It was inspired by three things:

1) My garden is a temporary washout due to T.S. Fay, so I have to find another way to satisfy my blog while we wait for the soil to dry out enough to replant.
2) I love sharing new and fun eco-friendly ideas with anyone who'll listen - or read.
3) My 4-year-old always grocery shops with me and when I point out that there's an organic alternative for something, he'll say "Organic? Cooool" but it always runs together into "organicool" so it's become a silly phrase for us.

So look for some fun and unique eco-friendly concepts…but they won't all necessarily be 100% organic. If it's green and earth-friendly I'm game.

Organicool - Chicken Feather Diapers

I ran across this odd idea recently and found it humorous and intriguing. Apparently the USDA has found a way to make diapers out of chicken feathers. We are cloth diaper users, but I'm intrigued by the idea of making disposable diapers without all the oil and toxins, and instead using a product that is normally discarded into landfills.

The scientist behind it is called Walter Schmidt and he's a chemist with the Agricultural Research Service. At ARS' Environmental Chemistry Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, Schmidt's job is to study the size, shape and chemical properties of all kinds of substances and materials. Doing this with chicken feathers has led Schmidt to find valuable new ways to recycle the feathers.

Each year, more than 2 billion pounds of feathers are produced by the U.S. poultry industry, enough to fill more than a billion pillowcases. Figuring out what to do with all those feathers can be a real headache. Most farmers throw them away, or they grind them up and mix them into animal feed to add protein to animal diets.

But Schmidt, as an environmental chemist, is always looking for ways to benefit the environment, such as by keeping mountains of feathers out of landfills.

Schmidt put a feather under a powerful electron microscope to get a close look at each piece or "barb" of a feather on a quill. What others see as feather, Schmidt sees as keratin fiber. Keratin is the same type of fiber found in wool. It gives wool clothes the ability to keep dry even in the rain. The keratin fibers in feathers are shorter and finer than those in wool, but just as strong. Keratin fibers in chicken feathers are much stronger and more absorbent than wood fibers--called plant cellulose. Keratin also breaks down in landfills much faster than plastic.

Schmidt has tinkered with chicken feather fibers to make other things. Just a few of these are dyed paper, cloth, paper plant pots, boats, canoes, insulation in homes and air filters for buildings and cars (including dashboards and door panels).

Schmidt says the feather fibers can come from any bird. But commercial chickens have built-in color control: they're bred to always have the same white feathers.

This technology is still in the development stage, but it's a very cool idea to me. I know the world won't switch to cloth like we did, but maybe if disposable diapers come from a better source and degraded quicker, they might not be so bad for the environment. Maybe Aidan's "Guess what? Chicken butt" shirt will be the new in-thing for babies? - in a new literal sense...

If you doubt my sanity with this, here is a NY Times article about the chicken feather diapers. It's an old article, so I'd love to know what's happened recently with this.

And here is a TreeHugger article on some students making fabric from chicken feathers

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