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How Good Are Cows at Digestion?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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