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Microbes in cow rumens can break down plastics

Plastic is ubiquitous in landfills, it chokes rivers and has been found littering the sea floor. Plastic also takes a ridiculously long time to break down in the environment and very little helps to speed up the process. Now researchers think they may have found something to help.

Interestingly, cows eat certain types of polyesters naturally found in plants and their rumens (one compartment of their complicated stomachs) contains bacteria that helps break these polyesters down. Scientists from Austria have recently published research looking into the possibility of using the microbes found in cows stomachs to break down human manufactured plastics. 

“A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals, so we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis,” explained Dr. Doris Ribitsch of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences.

Published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, the research tested three types of plastics in the incubated liquid from a rumen obtained from a slaughterhouse. The plastics tested were a synthetic polymer used in packaging and two biodegradable plastics used to make compostable plastic bags. The plastics were tested in both film and powder form for breakdown by the microbes. 

The researchers found that using the liquid, rather than using individual microbes, worked better. It may be that several microbes work together in the breakdown of plastic. As expected, the powdered plastics broke down better than the films. 

At this point, the researchers hope to do more work- but the process is extremely expensive and not very practical. Although, the experts pointed out, there are large amounts of rumens that are already available in slaughterhouses. 

With more work, it’s possible that it will lead to something more viable or open another avenue of research. Either way, this discovery holds out the hope for a sustainable way to break down harmful plastics and make our environment a cleaner one.     

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer


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