Rumen, found is bovine stomachs, can biodegrade common polyesters
Much as we try to recycle, some items just don’t break down very easily. A lot of plastics are like this, contributing to buildups like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and ending up in our food. Scientists have tried a number of enzymes to break down plastics, without a great deal of success. Interestingly, food might play a big role in the solving problem. Austrian researchers have found that rumen, found in the largest part of a cow’s stomach, can break down common plastics found in bags, bottles, and food packaging.
That’s because the polyesters found in most common plastics are quite similar to the polymer cutin, a waxy polyester found in things like fruit peels. Cows’ stomachs are excellent at breaking cutin down. The researchers, who published their findings in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, found that rumen can break down three common plastics in a few hours.
Unfortunately for those looking for a completely eco-friendly solution to the plastic problem, there’s really only one way to get a large supply of rumen.
“Due to the large amount of rumen that accumulates every day in slaughterhouses, upscaling would be easy to imagine,” said Dr. Doris Ribitsch of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.
But, Ribitsch’s colleague Prof. Georg Gübitz told CNN, a more reasonable approach would be to reproduce the enzymes found in rumen and genetically engineer them to be more efficient.
Since cattle agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change, finding a way to biodegrade plastics without relying on slaughterhouses would be the ideal for environmentalists. Otherwise, from their perspective, you’re trading one existential problem for another.