October 1, 2015
Worms Can Safely Eat Plastic Found In Our Trash

Plastic has long been considered to be one of the biggest contributors to worldwide pollution, and it is considered to be non-biodegradable. However, scientists may have finally found a match for plastic and it comes in the form of mealworms. These types of worms are the larval form of the Tenebrio molitor, the mealworm beetle.

According to CNN, researchers discovered that the worms can actually live on various types of plastic, as well as Styrofoam.

A new study that was published in Environmental Science and Technology revealed that inside the guts of the worms are microorganisms. These microrganisms that are found inside the guts of the worms are able to biodegrade polyethylene. This is a very common form of plastic.

The co-authors of the study are Professor Jun Yang and his doctorate student Yu Yang.

Wu said that finding out that the worms can eat Styrofoam and other types of plastic is a major breakthrough. As a matter of fact, he described the findings as one of the most major breakthroughs in environmental science in the last decade. Wu added that the worms may be able to play a role in solving the plastic pollution problem that is affecting the world.

A Styrofoam Food Container
A food container made from Styrofoam

The findings are the first to provide detailed evidence that the worms contain bacteria that can bio-degrade plastic. According to the Times of India, this is good news because understanding the bacteria within these worms may lead to new options for how plastic waste is managed.

Craig Criddle, who is a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervises plastics research by Wu and others at Stanford, said that finding out that the worms were capable of doing this was shocking. He also said that there was a possibility of important research coming out of bizarre places.

Throughout the study, researchers kept an eye on 100 worms. The worms consumed around eight pounds of Styrofoam. This is impressive because the worms pretty much ate the equivalent of a small pill, and they consumed this amount on a daily basis. Once the Styrofoam was eaten by the worms, half of it was converted into carbon dioxide. The worms would have done this with any other type of food source.

It gets even more impressive because within 24 hours, the worms ended up excreting most of the leftover plastic as biodegraded fragments that resembled rabbit droppings. Wu said that the worms that were placed on a steady diet of Styrofoam were just as healthy as the worms that were placed on a normal diet. Furthermore, the droppings that the worms excreted seemed to be safe enough to use as soil for crops.

In earlier research, researchers found that another type of worms could biodegrade polyethylene, and these worms were wax worms, which are the larvae of Indian mealmoths. However, the research involving meal worms was a bit more significant because it was commonly thought that Styrofoam was non-biodegradable and it was considered to be a bigger problem for the environment.

A waxworm

Researchers, including Criddle and Yang, are collaborating on ongoing studies. The researchers plan to study whether the microorganisms that are within the worms, as well as other insects, can biodegrade microbeads, bioplastics, as well as polypropylene.

Also, the researchers are planning to explore what happens to such materials when they are consumed by small animals and then consumed by other animals.

If researchers can use the worms to help find options to manage plastic waste, then that would be great. This is because in the United States alone, around 33 million tons of plastic are produced annually, but less than 10 percent of it is recycled.

However, even if the worms can help with how plastic waste is managed, Wu said that it cannot serve as a substitute for recycling. He said that people need to be better at recycling.

[Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images] [Image of Styrofoam food container by Spencer Platt/Getty Images] [Photo of waxworm by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/Public Domain]