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Researchers estimate that the world will have to contend with an overwhelming 710 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2040. Earlier this year, however, scientists in Austria discovered a glimmer of hope in a very surprising place.
They found that microbes in the stomachs of cows can break down certain plastics – such as those used in plastic bags, bottles, and food packaging – relatively easily. Notably, these microbes can break down plastics in a matter of hours, which is a significant improvement over the hundreds of years it normally takes for plastic to degrade on its own.
These microbes are found in the rumen, the largest compartment of a cow’s stomach. The researchers tested their effect on three kinds of plastic – commonly known as PET, PBAT and PEF.
Cows, microbes, and plastics:
- A cow's digestive system can break down all sorts of difficult-to-degrade food matter such as the polymer cutin, which is a plastic-like substance found in plants, including apple peels and berries.
- Plastics have been found in the most remote places on Earth. For example, there are an estimated 14 million metric tons of microplastics on the ocean floor.
- Last year, plastic was found in the gut of a small invertebrate on a remote island in Antarctica.