In many researches of what greatly could reduce the impact that waste has on the environment, scientists have found an animal whose gut bacteria can safely biodegrade plastic. The scientists from U.S. and China published an article in which they announced that the humble mealworm could be able to help us with our plastic problem.
Most plastic is produced from petroleum, the end product of a few million years of natural decay of organisms that once lived on Earth. Petroleum’s main ingredients come from lipids that were first assembled long ago in the cells of those organisms. Let’s just take as an example the plastic foam cups which Americans throw away 3 billion every year. And yet, that waste is just a fraction of the 35 million tons of plastic waste Americans throw away every year. Only less than 10% of that total amount gets recycled, and the rest presents challenges ranging from animal poisoning to water contamination.
Most types of plastics are made from a process where petroleum is heated on high temperatures, which causes the molecules to rearrange and become polypropylene, which are connected by strong carbon-carbon bonds. These very powerful bonds make plastic durable, but it is also a reason why the same plastic doesn’t break down naturally in nature. There aren’t many known insects or animals that can naturally break down plastics either, which is another reason why they’re accumulating oceans and landfills.
It has been found that this worm can safely eat and digest plastics like styrofoam, which were not recyclable until now and, therefore, get sent to landfill or end up littering our oceans and streets. Worm composting is using worm’s ability to recycle food scraps and other organic material into vermicompost, or worm compost, the valuable soil amendment. Worms eat food scraps, pass through the worm’s body and later become compost that can then be used to grow plants.
To understand why vermicompost is good for plants remember that the worms, in this case, are eating waste, turning them into nutrient-rich compost. The mealworms biodegrade the plastics in their gut, which later pass out from their organism in stools which is environmentally acceptable. This research could be a breakthrough in waste problem around the world. With further research, scientists could find a way to explore and use the worm’s stomach enzymes and successfully degrade world’s plastics.
According to the scientists, 50 mealworms could eat about 20 mg of styrofoam daily, which is about the weight of a pill. About one day after eating styrofoam the worms transform the half of the styrofoam into carbon dioxide and the other half of the waste as small biodegraded fragments.
These styrofoam-eating mealworms aren’t the only worms that can biodegrade plastics. The scientists have already discovered that the “waxworms”, which are larvae of Indian mealmoths, can also eat and biodegraded polyethylene, a type of plastic which is used in production of plastic bags. Even though more research needs to be done to know how the bacteria inside mealworms can really biodegrade plastic, the findings could be a significant step forward in solving our mounting problems with waste.