Would you use a pair of skis made out meat and bone meal? What if it meant they were biodegradable and cut down on landfill waste?
Researchers from Clemson University presented research at this year's National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) showing that it's possible to make biodegradable plastic out of meat and bone meal (MBM) byproducts from the livestock business, all without using any raw materials made from oil or natural gas.
For decades, MBM was fed to cattle, sheep, and other farmed animals. But when Mad Cow Disease hit, regulators reacted quickly. So in 1997, the FDA banned MBM as animal feed and banished it to landfills, where over nine billion pounds of the stuff piles up each year in the U.S. Before heading to the landfill, the ground up animal parts have to be treated with harsh chemicals to erase any potential traces of Mad Cow. "The ban changed what once was a valuable resource—a nutritious component of cattle feed—into a waste disposal headache," said Fehime Vatansever, one of the researchers behind the study, in a statement.
The solution proposed by Vatansever and colleagues is a process that replaces petroleum or natural gas with MBM in the plastic production process. The researchers mixed the animal-part based plastic with ultra-high-molecular weight polyethylene, a tough plastic used in skis, snowboards, joint replacements, and other products and found that the mixed plastic was almost as durable as the old, oil-based plastic alone alone—with the added benefit of being biodegradable.
But while the researchers have discovered a sustainable solution to the MBM problem, moral quandaries may prevent it from ever coming to market. What vegan will be happy with the knowledge that plastic products they use every day might contain little bits of sheep or cattle? MBM is already used in the U.K. as a fossil fuel replacement for energy generation, and it is even used in some cement kilns as a sustainable replacement for coal. But there's something unsettling about having ground-up animal parts used in products that we wear and carry around, especially since they're invisible to the naked eye—unlike fur.