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These crabs on your mattress won’t make you crabby

How one Pacific Coast startup is turning seafood waste into a cost-competitive natural purifier for textiles and more.

Crabs On Deck in the Bering Sea

Image courtesy of Tidal Vision

If you’ve knowingly come across a substance called chitosan, it’s probably because you were searching for a natural way to purify your swimming pool, or a bio-fertilizer for your garden, or perhaps you were trying to shed a few pounds.

What you may not know is this natural purifier might also be on your mattress.

Chitosan (pronounced "kite-osan") is derived from chitin, a complex carbohydrate found in crustacean exoskeletons — the shells of shrimp, crabs, lobsters, krill and so on — as well as in insect shells and the cell walls of fungi. This vast number of sources makes chitin the second most abundant natural complex carb after cellulose, found in the cell wall of green plants.

Because of its abundance and its antimicrobial, antibacterial and odor-neutralizing properties (to name a few), chitosan has attracted growing interest globally from scientific researchers and various industries over the last couple of decades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also given chitosan a thumbs up, including the substance on its Safer Chemical Ingredients List.

Hand in Chitosan

Chitosan is derived from chitin, a complex carbohydrate found in crustacean exoskeletons. Image courtesy of Tidal Vision

Biodegradable and effective at removing toxic materials, chitosan is increasingly used as a coagulant in wastewater treatment. It also has proven uses in the medical industry, for example as an antibacterial agent for bandages, along with not-so-proven uses as a weight loss supplement. In agriculture, chitosan can serve as a natural stimulant for plant growth and resilience, much as seaweed does. It’s registered with the EPA as a fungicide, antimicrobial agent and plant growth regulator that boosts the ability of plants to defend against fungal infections. The agency has also begun the process of adding it to the list of minimal risk pesticides.

Still, despite chitosan’s many uses, until recently, the U.S. didn’t have much commercial-scale chitosan production to speak of.

This left a wide-open market for Tidal Vision, a Bellingham, Wash.-based startup, to walk into. Founded six years ago by Craig Kasberg, a former commercial fisher from Juneau, Alaska, the company sources chitin from seafood processing waste, specifically crab shells from Kasberg’s home state.

Nationwide, roughly 800 million pounds of wild crustaceans — shrimp, crab and lobster —  are landed each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And 35 percent of the fish and seafood caught is wasted, according to an estimate from Friends of Ocean Action, an international coalition of marine experts and advocates.

Since its 2015 launch, Tidal Vision has become the leading U.S. commercial producer of chitosan, the company claims, manufacturing products for use in water treatment, agriculture and textiles. Tidal Vision treats a large portion of the stormwater in Washington state, Kari Ingalls, the company’s director of textile business development, told GreenBiz. And this summer, it inked a deal with Leigh Fibers, a large South Carolina-based textile manufacturer.

The global chitosan market is projected to reach $4.7 billion by 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 14.5%.

Tidal Vision uses "green chemistry" — defined as chemical products and processes that don’t generate hazardous substances — to extract the chitin from crab shells, the company says. It then produces industry specific chitosan products in easy-to-use liquid form.

For textiles, it manufactures an antimicrobial, antibacterial treatment that is also fire retardant and non-allergenic. The chitosan-based product can replace the non-biodegradable synthetic chemicals that have traditionally been used — for example, in fabrics for hospital uniforms and bedding — including heavy metals such as silver or copper, which can wash out of materials and pollute waterways.

It also costs less, 20 to 30 percent less than synthetic treatments, Eric Westgate, senior vice president of Leigh Fibers, told GreenBiz.

"One of the key reasons to switch for us and our customers was pricing," Westgate said. "There's no way to get around that. We can sell the green story and how it's better for the environment, but in most of these big customer bases that we're dealing with, it's really about the price point."

Leigh Fibers and Tidal Vision’s partnership includes a new chitosan production facility that Tidal Vision operates at the textile company’s Wellington, S.C., headquarters. Leigh Fibers specializes in converting textile waste into fabrics primarily used in the automotive industry, bedding, caskets and furniture.

Many of these products are often exposed to moisture, spills for example, and government regulations require they be treated to prevent the growth of bacteria, Westgate said. "So think about outdoor patio furniture with padding; that's our material. And it has to have [an antimicrobial finish added to it] to meet certain requirements, because it’s going to get wet."

Tote of Tidal-Tex-2021

Tidal Vision has been able to produce chitosan at a lower cost simply by developing a process to turn the raw material into a liquid form and manufacturing the product in the U.S. Image courtesy of Tidal Vision

With the new facility, Tidal Vision aims to market its chitosan-based product to other textile manufacturers as well, Ingalls said. The company has been able to produce chitosan at a lower cost simply by developing a process to turn the raw material into a liquid form and manufacturing the product here in the U.S., she added.

"Chitosan has mainly been [imported] from other countries, so it's been more expensive because of the import taxes and duties,” Ingalls said. “It has also come in a form that's not really usable until it is converted into a liquid. So just by removing those barriers to entry, we've really been able to grow the market."

The global chitosan market was valued at $1.7 billion in 2019, with the Asia-Pacific comprising the largest share of that. In terms of sectors, water treatment represented the largest chunk of the market in 2019, and analysts expect this segment to see the most growth.

At the same time, COVID-19 has sparked increased interest in the use of chitosan as a potential agent for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.

All told, the global chitosan market is projected to reach $4.7 billion by 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 14.5 percent.

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