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

After processing Bering Sea crabs like this one, the fish companies face the problem of disposing of the shells. A Bellingham, Washington-based company called Tidal Vision has developed green chemical technology to turn the discarded trays into a useful, sustainable industrial chemical. (Tidal Vision photo)

Perhaps the cliché is true that a boar’s ear cannot be made into a silk bag. But Craig Kasberg has successfully transformed salmon skin from his native Alaska into “water leather”. And now he’s turning discarded crab shells into a valuable industrial chemical called chitosan in an environmentally friendly process.

It runs swimming. This summer, Kasberg’s Tidal Vision opened a manufacturing facility in South Carolina, and in the fall the company will break the ground with a larger facility at its headquarters in Bellingham, Washington, south of the Canadian border.

Chitosan (pronounced “Kite-Osan”) is a versatile polysaccharide with numerous uses, including water purification, plant growth promotion, and preservation of fresh produce. It can replace toxic chemicals, metals, petroleum products, and pesticides used in industry. For example, the South Carolina facility will manufacture a liquid chitosan product that will be added to Leigh Fibers’ textiles to reduce odors caused by bacteria and make them less flammable.

Launched just six years ago, Tidal Vision is the leading commercial manufacturer of chitosan in the United States. China is the largest in the world, but it uses a process that creates toxic waste. Instead, Tidal Vision uses “green chemistry,” a practice that involves reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals, waste, and energy. Chitosan itself is on the US EPA’s Safe Chemical Ingredients List.

A ribbon cut in July 2021 at a new Tidal Vision manufacturing facility in South Carolina established in partnership with Leigh Fibers. From left: Daniel Mason, President of Leigh Fibers; Kari Ingalls, Tidal Vision Director of Business Development Textiles; Eric Westgate, senior vice president and general manager of Leigh Fibers; and Craig Kasberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Tidal Vision. (Tidal Vision photo)

Since the term green chemistry was coined in the late 1990s, this approach has been adopted by companies and researchers from the Pacific Northwest. In the past few years, Seattle-based Sironix Renewables has won a grand prize in a global competition for its green laundry detergent and has raised millions in grants and funding. Zila Works in Renton, Washington, won a separate international competition for its hemp-derived epoxy resin. Amazon recently allowed customers to search for eco products that typically use green chemistry and are certified with the EPA’s Safer Choice label. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington Universities have made significant discoveries in this area.

The sustainable approach in chemistry is an important engine of ecological progress.

“The principles of green chemistry are a necessary part of holistic thinking to develop safer products and materials that use less energy throughout their life cycle,” said Saskia van Bergen, green chemistry scientist at the Washington Department of Ecology.

Van Bergen found that Tidal Vision fulfills many of the green fields of chemistry, including making a non-petroleum based compound, using waste products as a feedstock, and creating fertilizers as a by-product.

The company produces chitosan flakes that are processed into liquid formulations that are tailored to specific industrial applications. Tidal Vision produces more than 5 million gallons (19,200 tons) of chitosan solution annually. It employs 23 people and is expected to grow to 60 by the end of next year.

We recently met with Kasberg to find out more about his green tech startup. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Chitosan flakes made from discarded peel. (Tidal Vision photo)

GeekWire: How did you come to start Tidal Vision with Co-Founder Zach Wilkinson?

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

I started working on commercial fishing boats and harvesting seafood when I was 14 and was the captain of my own boat when I was 19. When it was seen that a third of the catch was thrown away it just seemed like there had to be a better way and that ultimately inspired the research and development of Tidal Vision.

GW: Between catching fish and launching Tidal Vision in 2015, you also ran a sustainable fish shop, making leather from discarded salmon skin using a green chemical process. How did you hear about mussels and chitosan?

Kasberg: The crabs are harvested in the sea and then returned to very few processing sites. The same goes for the shrimp industry. And the EPA no longer allows processors to dispose of these pods in the sea because there have been environmental problems with them in the past, because they are so slowly biodegraded in a natural way.

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

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

Kasberg: It depends on the motivation what drives innovation. The fishing industry does not sell biochemicals to the textile industry, agriculture, water industry.

So it was kind of out of focus and it’s a much more fragmented industry than say the rest of the agribusiness where a lot of research funding has been heavily subsidized for many years and a lot of emphasis has been placed on the use of by-products. Nobody in the fishing industry had taken this approach before.

GW: You said that chitosan is the second most abundant natural polymer after cellulose in plants. But is there a chance you will run out of shells if you expand the operation?

Kasberg: The mussels are readily available and in large quantities. And what is really impressive is how far these clams go. If you’re making a high performance chitosan solution, all you need is about 22 pounds of chitosan, which you can extract from about 100 pounds of husks. That produces something that can handle about 10 metric tons (or 2,641 gallons) of contaminated water and bind all pollutants and toxins. It’s a very strong achievement. Or for textile and microbial applications, a 1-2% liquid chitosan solution is applied to these substances in an amount of 2-8%.

GW: You are planning to build further mixing plants in the Midwest, in Europe and in Vietnam that will dissolve chitosan flakes. What drives your sales?

Kasberg: Our mission is to bring about positive and systemic change in these industries, and our strategy for this is to promote and position our products not only as a green chemical alternative, but really as a cheaper and green solution.

What we found is that all of these companies are run by real people who really care about the environment, and all of these industries are absolutely essential to supporting humanity. And if you go to them with “Hey, we have something like it that is greener,” it’s a very easy sale.

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