Why you should care
If we’re going to sacrifice an animal for human consumption, at least we could try to eliminate waste.
What do tennis rackets, film and dynamite all have in common? It may be hard to imagine, but they are all made up of substances derived from the byproducts of cattle. Chances are, even if you try to avoid cow products, you’ll end up using them anyway.
But that just may be a good thing: using the whole cow — byproducts and all — may help turn what many consider an environmentally unsound industry into a more sustainable economic source.
A cow that weighs 1,000 pounds may be expected to give just 530 to 700 pounds of meat (estimates range from 53 to 70 percent). The rest is considered “waste.” According to a report by the National Institute of Health, “Slaughter house waste consists of the portion of a slaughtered animal that cannot be sold as meat or used in meat-products. Such waste includes bones, tendons, skin, the contents of the gastro-intestinal tract, blood and internal organs.” The report says these cattle byproducts may in fact represent 66 percent of the live weight of the animal. So where does the rest, this 66 percent, go?
- Bones → Jewelry and serving wear, such as utensils and cups
- Hooves and bones → Gelatin coating on photographic film
- Hooves → Dog treats
- Hooves → Keratin protein → Fire extinguisher foam
- Fat → Tallow → Glycerin → Soap and Dynamite
- Fat → Tallow → Stearic acid → Rubber tires, to maintain elasticity
- Ear and Tail Hair → Paint brushes, misleadingly called “camel hair”
- Lungs → Heparin, an injectable anti-coagulant
- Adrenal glands → Steroids
- Pancreas → Insulin
- Gallstones → Aphrodisiacs
In Asian countries, gallstones are turned into a potion believed to increase virility and have at times have been calculated to be worth more than their weight in gold.
One place the 66 percent doesn’t go is to feeding other cows: Using bovine blood and bone meal as feed was banned in the U.S. in 1997 following the mad cow disease outbreaks of the 1990s.
Leather is valuable enough to make it a primary product rather than a byproduct, particularly since the best leather often comes from newborn calves. Environmentally, leather treatments and tanning creates an entirely different set of environmental offenses, on top of the well-documented environmental costs of cattle production.
The environmental cost of beef is 10 times more than other livestock.
Gut is also closer to a mainstream product. For more than 2,000 years it’s been used for instrument strings and surgical sutures — called “catgut.” Rosina Russell, production manager for the firm Norfolk, explains why many top tennis players prefer natural gut strings. “With synthetic string, once it’s in the racquet and is hit by a ball, it will stretch and stay stretched, but because gut has a natural memory, it always tries to return to its original form, therefore absorbing the shock a lot more and reducing the risk of tennis elbow.” See this video on the process.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “beef production demands about one order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories,” such as poultry. In other words, the environmental cost of beef is 10 times more than other livestock. For many people, the jury is in: meat is not sustainable.
However, using the “waste” may make it ever-so-slightly more sustainable. As supported by the NIH study, “efficient utilization of byproducts has direct impact on the economy and environmental pollution.” Thanks to technological advances and plain old ingenuity, people all over the world have found ways to reuse what was formerly environmentally-impactful waste and turn it into something economically valuable.
Shannon Sims is a writer, photographer and lawyer living in Brazil, and a recent Forest & Society Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. Follow her @simssh.