Impact Series

How an Alaskan fisherman noticed potential for a sustainability startup in a mountain of crab shells

After Bering Sea crabs like these have been processed, seafood companies are stuck with the problem of disposing of the shells. A company based in Bellingham, Wash., called Tidal Vision has developed a green chemistry technology for turning the discarded shells into a useful, sustainable industrial chemical. (Tidal Vision Photo)

Maybe the cliche is right, that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But Craig Kasberg has successfully transformed waste salmon skin from his native Alaska into “aquatic leather.” And now he’s using an environmentally friendly process to turn discarded crab shells into a valuable industrial chemical called chitosan.

It’s going swimmingly. This summer, Kasberg’s company Tidal Vision opened a production site in South Carolina and this fall the business will break ground on a larger facility in its headquarters of Bellingham, Wash., located just south of the Canadian border.

Chitosan (pronounced “kite-osan”) is a versatile polysaccharide that has numerous applications, including water purification, boosting plant growth and preserving fresh produce. It can replace toxic chemicals, metals, petroleum products and pesticides used in industry. The plant in South Carolina, for example, will produce a liquid chitosan product that will be added to Leigh Fibers’ textiles to reduce odors caused by bacteria and to make them less flammable.

After launching only six years ago, Tidal Vision is the leading U.S. commercial producer of chitosan. China is the biggest globally, but uses a process that creates toxic waste. Tidal Vision instead employs “green chemistry,” a practice that includes reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals, waste and energy used. Chitosan itself is on the lauded U.S. EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients List.

A July 2021 ribbon cutting at a new Tidal Vision production facility in South Carolina established in partnership with Leigh Fibers. From left: Daniel Mason, Leigh Fibers president; Kari Ingalls, Tidal Vision director of business development-textiles; Eric Westgate, Leigh Fibers senior vice president and general manager; and Craig Kasberg, Tidal Vision co-founder and CEO. (Tidal Vision Photo)

Since the term green chemistry was coined in the late 1990s, the approach has been embraced by Pacific Northwest companies and researchers. In recent years, Seattle’s Sironix Renewables took home a top prize in a global competition with its green detergent and has raised millions in grants and funding. Zila Works in Renton, Wash., won a separate international contest for its hemp-derived epoxy resin. Amazon recently made it possible for customers to search for eco-products that typically use green chemistry and are certified by the EPA’s Safer Choice label. Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington universities have made significant discoveries in the field.

The sustainable approach to chemistry is an important driver in environmental progress.

“Green chemistry principles are a necessary part of thinking holistically to create safer products and materials that use less energy over their entire lifecycle,” said Saskia van Bergen, green chemistry scientist with the Washington Department of Ecology.

Van Bergen noted that Tidal Vision ticks many of the green chemistry boxes, including creating a non-petroleum based compound, using waste products as source material and generating fertilizer as a byproduct.

The company produces chitosan flakes that are blended into liquid formulas tailored to specific industrial applications. Tidal Vision produces more than 5 million gallons (19,200 metric tons) of chitosan solution annually. It employs 23 people with plans to grow to 60 by about the end of next year.

We recently caught up with Kasberg to learn more about his green tech startup. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Chitosan flakes produced from discarded shells. (Tidal Vision Photo)

GeekWire: How did you come to launch Tidal Vision with co-founder Zach Wilkinson?

Kasberg: I was living in Juneau, Alaska, which is where I was born and raised. I grew up in the seafood industry, and that’s where our raw material comes from. We’re taking a biopolymer that’s found in all crustacean shells, so crab shells, shrimp shells, lobster shells, all have it.

I started working on commercial fishing boats, harvesting seafood, when I was 14 years old, was captaining my own boat by 19 years old. Seeing a third of the catch thrown away, it just seemed like there had to be a better way and that’s ultimately what inspired the research and the creation of Tidal Vision.

GW: Between fishing and launching Tidal Vision in 2015, you also ran a sustainable seafood business and made leather from discarded salmon skins using a green chemistry process. How did you become interested in shells and chitosan?

Kasberg: The crab are harvested out in the ocean and then brought back to very few processing sites. Same with the shrimp industry. And the EPA does not allow the processors to discard those shells in the ocean anymore because in the past, there had been ecological issues with that because they’re so slow to naturally biodegrade.

So it’s an abundant, problematic byproduct that they either had to send to landfills or incinerators. We’re just preventing that. We’re not only taking a problematic waste stream from the industry that I know and love and grew up in, but now we’re able to turn it into something that really does good for the world, that displaces non-biodegradable toxins and heavy metals.

GW: It only took your team 1 1/2 years to develop the green technology to turn trashed shells into chitosan. Why hadn’t someone done it already?

Kasberg: It comes down to motivation, what drives innovation. The seafood industry, they do not sell biochemicals to the textile, the agriculture, the water industry.

So it was sort of outside of where they were focused and it’s a much more fragmented industry than say the rest of the agriculture industry where a lot of research dollars have been heavily subsidized for a lot of years and there’s been a lot of focus on utilizing byproducts. No one had quite taken that approach in the seafood industry.

GW: You said that chitosan is the second most abundant natural polymer after cellulose found in plants. But is there a chance that you’ll run low on shells as you expand operations?

Kasberg: The shells are readily available and in huge volumes. And what’s really impressive is how far those shells go. When you make a high-performance chitosan solution you only need about 22 pounds of chitosan which you can extract from about a 100 pounds of shells. That produces something that can treat about 10 metric tons (or 2,641 gallons) of contaminated water and bind to all the pollutants and toxins. It’s a very powerful performance. Or in textile and microbial applications, a 1-2% liquid chitosan solution is applied at a 2-8% rate to these fabrics.

GW: You plan to build additional blending facilities in the Midwest, Europe and Vietnam that turn chitosan flakes into solution. What drives your sales?

Kasberg: Our mission is to create positive and systemic change in these industries and our strategy for doing that is by pricing and positioning our products as not just the green chemistry alternative, but truly the lower cost and green solution.

What we’ve found is all these companies are run by real people who really care about the environment, and all these industries are absolutely essential for supporting humankind. And if you go to them with, “Hey, we have something comparable on cost that is more environmentally friendly” it’s a very easy sale.

Related Articles

Trả lời

Email của bạn sẽ không được hiển thị công khai. Các trường bắt buộc được đánh dấu *