Bacteria in cow stomachs are one solution to plastic pollution

As our world’s plastic pollution crisis intensifies, researchers are increasingly searching for new and innovative ways to address the problem. Enzymes and circular design have shown real promise, and the latest plastic waste solution comes from an even more surprising source: cow stomachs.

Existing microbes have the ability to break down natural polyester, and given that cows consume many of these microbes in their natural diet, scientists from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna were curious to see if bovine digestive fluids, rumen, had any impact on plastics.

The researchers tested the impact of rumen on three types of polyesters: PET, PBAT (biodegradable plastic), and PEF. They found that the microbes present in the rumen were effective at breaking down all three types of plastic, but were most effective on plastic in a powdered form.

Next, the researchers plan to narrow down their work to identify which rumen microbes, out of thousands present, are specifically responsible for the breakdown. They believe it is not necessarily one type of microbe, but a certain combination of microbes working in conjunction with one another that offer these plastic-eating benefits. Once they narrow this down, the rumen can be simulated and the process can be applied on a larger scale at recycling facilities around the world.

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