Plastic waste is a real problem. The majority of what doesn’t get recycled ends up in landfills, where it could take an awfully long time to degrade. Austrian researchers think they have found a better way. According to their data, cow stomachs may be the key to managing plastic waste in the future.
A research study recently published by the Frontiers journal lays it all out. The paper is the culmination of work done by researchers from three institutions. Together, they discovered substances commonly found in cow stomachs are capable of breaking down synthetic polyesters. This would include some of the more common plastics, like PET for example.
1. The Plastic Waste Problem
The Austrian research was prompted, in part, by the ongoing problem the world has with plastic waste. Compared to the amount of plastic we produce each year, we recycle and reuse very little. The reasons are multiple and varied. Needless to say, we have to find a way to solve the problem if we don’t want to be overwhelmed by mountains of plastic at some point in the near future.
Consumer waste is the bigger problem. Things like plastic water bottles and food containers find their way into municipal landfills by the ton. On the other hand, industrial plastic waste is more easily recycled. According to Tennessee recycler Seraphim Plastics, industrial recycling is easier and more cost-effective because plastic waste is clean. It doesn’t require any sorting or extra processing.
Items like food containers and plastic bags are a different matter. Recycling them requires manual sorting. That is costly enough. But then recycled plastics have to be cleaned and further processed. In some cases, multiple plastics combined in a single product have to be separated. That costs even more time and money. In the end, it is neither cost-effective nor viable to invest in recycling most consumer plastics.
2. Degrade Them Instead
If we are not going to recycle plastics, do we have any other choice but to throw them in landfills or incinerators? The Austrian researchers think so. Their research proves that most common consumer plastics can be degraded rather quickly by content found in cow rumen.
The rumen is the largest compartment in a cow’s stomach. Inside is a full array of enzymes and bacteria capable of breaking down all sorts of tough materials. Researchers are especially interested in something known as cutin; a natural polyester found in plant material. The researchers say that cutin is remarkably similar to PET plastic.
They harvested rumen content and applied it to a number of plastics to see what would happen. As it turns out, the bacteria and enzymes broke down plastics relatively quickly. Furthermore, the researchers discovered that degradation was more complete the longer the material was treated with rumen contents.
3. Scaling up Process
Cutin is similar to PET but not identical. As such, researchers say that more study is necessary to determine which types of plastics can be effectively degraded by rumen content. They will also look at changing the rumen content formula to see if they can achieve better results with some plastics. Finally, the entire process needs to be scaled up.
Should they succeed, the world can have an effective process for addressing plastic waste within the next few years. Instead of sending plastic bottles, utensils, and other consumer plastics to recycling centers or landfills, we could be sending them to processors who completely eliminate them by way of rumen content. Of course, we have to be able to produce that rumen content at will. Researchers will undoubtedly figure that out later.