• Bacteria found in cow stomachs can be used to digest polyesters used in textiles, packaging, and compostable bags, according to a new study.
  • Plastic is notoriously hard to break down, but bacteria from a cow’s rumen, one of the four compartments of their stomach can digest it.
  • The new findings present a sustainable option for reducing plastic waste and litter.
  • The study has only been carried out at lab scale, but its authors believe the process would be easy to scale up, having significant environmental benefits.

Bacteria found in cow stomachs can be used to digest polyesters used in textiles, packaging, and compostable bags, according to a new study by the open access publisher Frontiers. Plastic is notoriously hard to break down, but microbial communities living inside the digestive system of animals are a promising but under-investigated source of novel enzymes that could do the trick. The new findings present a sustainable option for reducing plastic waste and litter, co-opting the great metabolic diversity of microbes.

Plastic is notoriously hard to break down, but researchers in Austria have found that bacteria from a cow’s rumen – one of the four compartments of its stomach – can digest certain types of the ubiquitous material, representing a sustainable way to reduce plastic litter. The discovery is published today in the open access journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

The scientists suspected such bacteria might be useful since cow diets already contain natural plant polyesters. “A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals,” said Dr Doris Ribitsch, of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, “so we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis,” a type of chemical reaction that results in decomposition. In other words, these microorganisms can already break down similar materials, so the study authors thought they might be able to break down plastics as well.

Plastics and the Environment Environment and Natural Resource Security Climate Change Science
Dacteria from a cow’s rumen, one of the four compartments of their stomach can digest plastic..
Image: Frontiers

Ribitsch and her colleagues looked at three kinds of polyesters. One, polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PET, is a synthetic polymer commonly used in textiles and packaging. The other two consisted of a biodegradable plastic often used in compostable plastic bags (polybutylene adipate terephthalate, PBAT), and a biobased material (Polyethylene furanoate, PEF) made from renewable resources.

They obtained rumen liquid from a slaughterhouse in Austria to get the microorganisms they were testing. They then incubated that liquid with the three types of plastics they were testing (which were tested in both powder and film form) in order to understand how effectively the plastic would break down.

According to their results, all three plastics could be broken down by the microorganisms from cow stomachs, with the plastic powders breaking down quicker than plastic film. Compared to similar research that has been done on investigating single microorganisms, Ribitsch and her colleagues found that the rumen liquid was more effective, which might indicate that its microbial community could have a synergistic advantage – that the combination of enzymes, rather than any one particular enzyme, is what makes the difference.

While their work has only been done at a lab scale, Ribitsch said, “Due to the large amount of rumen that accumulates every day in slaughterhouses, upscaling would be easy to imagine.” However, she cautions that such research can be cost-prohibitive, as the lab equipment is expensive, and such studies require pre-studies to examine microorganisms.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Nevertheless, Ribitsch is looking forward to further research on the topic, saying that microbial communities have been underexplored as a potential eco-friendly resource.