Throwaway plastic is everywhere – plastic forks, plastic straws, plastic cups, and oh those plastic bags! Red River Theater in Concord recently showed the 2010 film “Bag It” which taught me that 4 ounces of petroleum are required to create and transport one 8-ounce plastic bottle of water. You may have heard about the Pacific Ocean gyre – a giant circular surface current that has entrapped trillions of tons of plastic particles in an endless swirl.
Thinking it's food, ocean fish will eat microplastic – tiny fragments created when larger chunks disintegrate. Some plastic-eating sea life will die, like the sperm whale in Indonesia that ate 13 pounds of plastic. Other ocean creatures that have absorbed microplastic might end up on the dinner table, transferring plastic to humans that eat them. Yuck!
Plastic is also a threat to livestock. The baleage, 1,000-pound bales of hay we feed our herd of cattle at Miles Smith Farm, is sealed inside a sheet of plastic. Inside this air-tight covering, hay ferments to create a protein-rich forage that cattle love.
Before feeding each round bale, we remove the plastic so a cow won't eat it. A small wad will safely pass through her intestines, but a more substantial lump could cause blockage. This affliction is called “plastic colic,” and it can kill.
Sound depressing? It is, but there is a possible alternative. There is a miracle substance that could be used to make spoons and straws that are not only functional but edible. Even better, this is a product farmers already produce in abundance – it's milk.
John Porter, a dairy expert, and University of New Hampshire Extension Professor Emeritus, recently wrote an article for Hoard's Dairyman magazine advocating the use of milk in food wrap, packaging material and even as covers for hay. According to Porter, “Milk has proteins and a lot of other nutrients that might be able to be components of manufacturing. Just think if all the covering put over a bunker silo were made of a milk-based fabric. You could use up a lot of milk and have a material that could be ground up with the feed for the cows.”
Milk-based wrapping would increase the demand for milk, help dairy farmers make a living, and reduce plastic use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to develop a milk-based plastic that is so biodegradable that it's edible; 500 times better than plastic at locking out oxygen that makes food spoil; and could be available in three years.
Wow! Cattle would help address our plastic overload by creating the raw material for an alternative, and then eat that alternative to generate more raw material. To look at them, you'd never know that cows are so talented.