Styrofoam-Eating Worms Could Hold the Solution to Planet’s Plastic Waste Worries

April 18, 2019 Updated: April 23, 2019

There’s a new hope that the plastic-pocalypse isn’t just around the corner for planet Earth. Despite the tens of millions of tons of plastic we throw away each year, the key to turning it all around might boil down to something you wouldn’t expect: worm guts—literally.

Looking at just Styrofoam cups alone, Americans discard 2.5 billion of them each year—merely a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic that goes to waste in the United States annually. And we know it takes plastic literally hundreds of years to biodegrade on its own.

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View of plastic bottles for recycling at La Sylvia recycling center in Barva, province of Heredia, Costa Rica. (©Getty Images | EZEQUIEL BECERRA)

For a while, we pinned our hopes on plastic recycling as a solution—or at least a delay of the inevitable. Sure, plastic water bottles serve this process nicely; they are the easiest plastics to recycle. Straws and many other types of plastic are completely non-recyclable without considerable effort. Recycling has proven to have its limits. In the end, a very large amount of plastic, recycled or not, ends up in landfills or in our oceans.

Yet, researchers at Stanford University may have found a better potential solution. They discovered, in collaboration with Chinese scientists, that mealworms are able to literally eat Styrofoam. Not only that, but they also turn it into excrement that is totally biodegradable and safe for the environment. Nor were the mealworms, which are simply beetles in the larvae state, harmed by the plastic any more than worms that ate a normal diet.

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The study found that 100 mealworms were able to consume 40 mg of Styrofoam per day—a minuscule amount, about the same mass as a pill. The worms are not the solution for transforming plastic themselves—dumping a bunch of mealworms into a vat full of plastic waste was never the idea. The solution was to find out about whatever magic was taking place inside their guts—the chemical environment that transforms harmful plastics into harmless biomaterial—and to reproduce it. All that was left behind was some CO2 and stool that looked a bit like rabbit doo-doo. It was a remarkable discovery considering that Styrofoam was previously considered non-biodegradable.

Earlier research had already discovered that wax worms had the bacteria in their guts that could biodegrade polyethylene. The researchers had been planning to see if mealworms and other insects are able to biodegrade other plastics such as polypropylene (used in various products) and microbeads (used in exfoliants).

Just imagine if we could find a way to reproduce whatever it is that these worms do only on a larger scale. We could actually see some major changes in our society, in our economy, and in our ecosystem.

Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut. (©Getty Images | JOSEPH EID)

A Few More Facts Why Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Always Work

Every time plastic is recycled, its quality is downgraded. Plastics are made up of polymers (long strings of repeating molecules). It’s these that give plastic its strength and lightness. Each time they are recycled, the polymer chain of plastic molecules becomes shorter. Plastic can be recycled only 2–3 times before it becomes practically useless as products, and each time it is recycled, some virgin plastic has to be mixed in for it to stand up against non-recycled products.

©Public domain | Charles Rondeau

Dirty plastic cannot be recycled. While many people think they’ve done their part simply by tossing their used plastic bento box in the correct bin, it’s not always the case. Plastic has to be washed thoroughly before it can be utilized in recycling. Recyclers will often wash plastic multiple times before it is melted down. Dirty plastic is often deemed not viable for turning a profit.

Some plastic products are simply not recyclable, while some are but only if there is a market demand for them. Plastic bags and straws are simply not recyclable. Sometimes, computer parts such as keyboards are, but only if someone is willing to pay for them. Public recycling policy plays a pivotal role in generating this market demand.

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