In 1997, the US Food and Drug Administration banned feeding meat and bone meal (MBM) made from by-products of slaughtered cattle, sheep and farmed deer, elk and bison to those same animals, Vatansever explained. Other countries soon took similar action. These actions resulted from concern over Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD), the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a rare but fatal brain disorder that can result from eating infected meat.
As of 2010, only three cases of BSE have occurred in the United States. The bans were put in place to reduce the chances that meat and bone meal made from one infected cow could spread BSE throughout cattle herds.
“The ban changed what once was a valuable resource — a nutritious component of cattle feed — into waste disposal headache,” Vatansever said. “More than 9 billion lbs. of protein meal are produced by the US rendering industry each year, and most of that is meat and bone meal. The meal from cows had to be treated with harsh chemicals to destroy any BSE and then put into special landfills. We thought we could keep meat and bone meal from being deposited in landfills by using it to make petroleum-free bioplastics.”
Vatansever and her colleagues described developing and successfully testing the process, which uses meat and bone as the raw material rather than the chemical compounds in petroleum or natural gas. They mixed the MBM plastic with ultra-high-molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), an extremely tough plastic used in skis, snowboards, joint replacements, PVC windows and other products. Their tests showed the MBM/UHMWPE plastic is almost as durable as UHMWPE with the bonus of being partially biodegradable.
During the manufacture of the plastic, any BSE infectious agents that might be present in the meat and bone meal are deactivated, Vatansever said.
“This is just one way to reuse meat and bone meal, and it’s great because it reduces the amount of petroleum needed to make plastics,” she said. “We’ve also managed to create a strong, sustainable material that is easy to manufacture.”