Bacteria in a cow’s stomach may rid the world of plastic pollution

VIENNA, Austria — Bacteria sitting in the stomachs of cows may be the answer to getting rid the world’s plastic pollution problem, a new study finds. Researchers in Austria say these microbes could be harvested and used to break down plastics in an eco-friendly way.

Plastic is notoriously hard to dispose of and certain products can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose. Estimates show more than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day, totaling up to around 22 billion every year.

Now, scientists from University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences have come up with a solution which also involves recycling bits from deceased cows. Meat producers slaughter over 300 million cattle for food purposes globally every year. One part that does not end up in supermarkets is this potentially useful bacteria.

“A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals,” says Dr. Doris Ribitsch in a media release. “So we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis.”

‘Digesting’ plastic waste

Researchers note this is a type of chemical reaction that results in decomposition. The team decided to focus on cows because the bacteria in their stomachs can break down natural materials similar to plastic. Study authors obtained rumen liquid from a slaughterhouse in Austria, which contains the bacteria.

They then added three types of plastic to the liquid and incubated it in both powder and film forms. The first type, known as PET, is a common ingredient in textiles and packaging. The other two consist of biodegradable plastics used to make compostable plastics and a bio-based material made from renewable sources.

The results show the hungry bacteria breaks all of these plastic forms down, with plastic powder decomposing quicker than films. In comparison to other microorganisms capable of “digesting” plastic waste, the rumen liquid is more effective. This suggests the cow’s microbial community working together may be more effective rather than a single microbe. Although this research is in its early stages, the findings are a first step towards recycling plastic in an eco-friendly way.

“Due to the large amount of rumen that accumulates every day in slaughterhouses, upscaling would be easy to imagine,” Dr. Ribitsch adds.

The team does note this research can be cost-prohibitive, as the lab equipment is expensive and such studies require pre-studies to examine microorganisms. The researchers are planning on carrying out more tests and exploring other microbial communities in the future. Dr. Ribitsch says microbial communities have been underexplored as a potential eco-friendly resource.

The findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.