Ruminal Degradation of Polyhydroxyalkanoate and Poly(butylene succinate-co-adipate)

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Virginia Tech


The occurrence of plastic impaction in ruminants is a growing concern. As indiscriminate feeders, cattle may consume plastic foreign materials incorporated into their diets and it is currently estimated that 20% of cattle contain plastic foreign materials in their rumen. These materials are indigestible and accumulate for the lifetime of the animal. As these materials accumulate, they may reduce feed efficiency and production by erosion and ulceration of rumen epithelium, stunting of papillae, blockage of the reticulo-omasal orifice, and leaching of toxic heavy metals. It is necessary to reduce the incidences of plastic impaction in domestic ruminants. Using polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and poly(butylene succinate-co-adipate) (PBSA) biodegradable materials for feed storage products such as bale netting could reduce the incidences and effects of polyethylene-based plastic impaction in ruminants. The objectives of these studies were to evaluate the degradability of PHA and PBSA materials in the reticulorumen via in vitro, in situ, and in vivo methods. Our hypothesis was that these materials would degrade in the rumen and that a melt-blend of PHA and PBSA may degrade faster than its individual components. An in vitro study incubated a proprietary PHA-based polymer, PBSA, and PBSA:PHA melt blend nurdles, and forage controls in rumen fluid for up to 240h in DaisyII Incubators. Mass loss was measured, and digestion kinetic parameters were estimated. Thermogravimetric and differential scanning calorimetry analyses were conducted on incubated samples. Results indicated that the first stage of degradation occurs within 24h and PHA degrades slowly. Degradation kinetics demonstrated that polymer treatments were still in the exponential degradation phase at 240h with a maximum disappearance rate of 0.0031%/h, and mass loss was less than 2% for all polymers. Melting temperature increased and onset thermal degradation temperature decreased with incubation time, indicating structural changes to the polymers starting at 24h. Further in situ degradation, however, indicated these biodegradable materials degrade at more accelerated rates in the rumen. Polyhydroxyalkanote, PBSA, PBSA:PHA blend, and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) films were incubated in the rumens of three cannulated, non-lactating Holsteins for 0, 1, 14, 30, 60, 90, 120, and 150d. In situ disappearance (ISD) and residue length were assessed after every incubation time. Polyhydroxyalkanoate achieved 100% degradation by 30d, with initiation occurring at 14d indicated by ISD and a reduction in residue length. The fractional rate of disappearance of PHA was 7.84%/d. Poly(butylene succinate-co¬-adipate) and Blend did not achieve any significant ISD, yet fragmentation of PBSA occurred at 60d and the blend at just 1d likely due to abiotic hydrolysis. Low-density polyethylene achieved no ISD and residue length did not change over incubation time. From these results, we proposed a PBSA:PHA blend is a valid alternative to polyethylene single-use agricultural plastic products based on its fragmentation within 1d of incubation. Administration of PBSA:PHA film boluses compared to LDPE films and a control further supported this dissemination. Holstein bull calves (n = 12, 62 ± 9d, 74.9 ± 8.0kg) were randomly allocated to one of three daily bolus treatments: 13.6g of PBSA:PHA in 4 gelatin capsules (Blend), 13.6g of LDPE in 4 gelatin capsules (LDPE), or 4 empty gelatin capsules (Control) for 30d. Hemograms were conducted on blood samples collected on d0 and d30. On d31, animals were sacrificed to evaluate gross rumen measurements and pathology, determine papillae length, and characterize polymer residues present in rumen contents. Feed intake, body weight, body temperature, and general health were determined throughout the study. No animals presented any symptoms related to plastic impaction and animal health was not particularly affected by treatment. Daily grain and hay intake, body weight, rectal temperature, hematological parameters, gross rumen measurements and pathology, and rumen pH and temperature were not affected by treatment. There was evidence that degradation of PBSA:PHA may release byproducts that support rumen functionality. Methylene blue reduction time of Blend calves tended to be decreased by 30% compared to LDPE calves, and caudal ventral papillae length of Blend calves were 50% longer than those of Control animals. Though studies are needed to specifically elucidate the production of byproducts due to degradation of PBSA:PHA and their correlations. Polymer accumulation and residue length differed among treatments. Calves dosed with LDPE retained 6.7% of the dosed polymer, undegraded, while Blend calves retained 0.4% of the dosed polymer. The polymer residues in Blend calves were 10% of their original size. Single-use agricultural plastics developed from PBSA:PHA may be a suitable alternative to LDPE-based products in the case of ingestion in ruminants due to no acute health inflictions, fragmentation of polymers with 1d, and improved clearance from the reticulorumen. As such, utilization of these materials may reduce the incidences of plastic impaction in ruminants in commercial operations. Further long-term feeding studies are needed to evaluate specific byproduct production of PBSA:PHA and their potential influences on rumen function and animal health and production in normal commercial conditions.



Ruminal degradation, Polyhydroxyalkanoate, Poly(butylene succinate-co-adipate), Biodegradable polymer, Plastic impaction