Plucking time

The political economy of chicken feathers

Published September 21, 2006 10:39PM (EDT)

The American chicken industry produces 4 billion pounds of chicken feather waste every year. Your average chicken processing facility pumps out around 4,000 pounds of feathers an hour.

That's a whole lotta plucking goin' on. Enough, in fact, to change the way a man sees the world. I know I, for one, will never again be able to face down a plate of buffalo wings without thinking of the awesome feather waste stream produced by a nation hooked on Chicken McNuggets and Kentucky Fried.

Right now, most of those feathers are recycled into fertilizer or animal feed or sent to a landfill. But Wired News reports today that at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco last week University of Nebraska researchers Narendra Reddy and Yiqi Yang presented a plan to convert chicken feathers into textile fibers. This, they noted, had the dual benefit of absorbing leftover feathers and conserving the petroleum currently used to manufacture synthetic clothing fibers.

Who doesn't love this kind of story? Chicken feathers are transformed into khaki pants, thus reducing our dependence on foreign oil and possibly even mitigating global warming. As the clever headline writer for a story written about other potential uses of chicken feathers wrote a few years back, that's getting "more bang for your cluck."

What, you say, there are other chicken feather possibilities besides rayon and lycra substitution? Yes indeed! If you look around the Web, you will find that poultry feather studies is a suspiciously fecund research area. The primary structural element of chicken feathers is the natural biopolymer fiber keratin -- a substance whose microcrystalline structure makes it strong and durable and resistant to "thermal stress." So chicken feathers have been proposed as building materials, replacements for paper products (think: disposable diapers!), biodegradable plastics and even computer chips. No lie: Richard Wool, director of the Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources (ACRES) program at the University of Delaware, has made circuit boards out of chicken feathers.

All testament to the creativity of homo sapiens, right? We will innovate our way out of resource constraints and proliferating waste streams. In the future, no feather will be left behind! Gaia will be so pleased.

Either that, or the price of boneless thighs is set to drop. Because repurposing chicken feathers is not just about respecting the cycle of life, conserving oil or even avoiding landfill proliferation.

According to "Physical and Mechanical Properties of Chicken Feather Materials," a doctoral thesis published earlier this year, industrial chicken processors can get about $250 a ton for chicken feather animal feed. That's a hefty improvement on the 30 bucks a ton that landfill disposal costs. But it isn't a secure revenue stream. In 2001, the European Union banned the use of chicken feathers in animal feed, citing health concerns, and the U.S. FDA has mulled over similar measures here. But if chicken feathers could be converted to building materials, their value could leap up to as much as $1,000 a ton. And that would create considerable economies of scale for somebody like, say, Tyson. Naturally, in the cutthroat chicken biz, where a single business misstep can result in your corporate eyes getting pecked out in no short order, a new revenue stream wouldn't necessarily mean pure profit -- instead, it might just allow, say, Tyson to lower the price of its chicken meat as a way of grabbing more market share.

It's a brutal world out there -- and every feather counts. Pluck or get plucked.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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