Mealworms Key To Saving Planet, Study Shows They Can Eat Plastic And Produce Biodegradable Waste

It seems a new hero has emerged in the fight against plastic and for a sustainable Earth. Plastic is one of the biggest offenders to the environment since it literally takes centuries for plastic to biodegrade; however, scientists have discovered that there is a solution to this giant problem: tiny, squishy mealworms.

Polystyrene, the type of plastic that makes Styrofoam, packing peanuts and take out containers is mass produced to the tune of 21 million pounds each year and most of that just ends up in landfills. Even worse, plastic has a habit of "making its way" to the ocean and endangering the lives of the creatures that reside there. Thus far, no bacteria or organism has been shown to be able to decompose plastic like other forms of trash. Mealworms, however, have been found to not only live off a diet of Styrofoam and other types of plastics but to actually thrive on it. A photo was provided in the study to show the process.

Mealworms enjoying their Styrofoam diet
Mealworms enjoying their Styrofoam diet

The mealworm, larvae form of the darkling beetle, has been found to contain in its guts microorganisms that can biodegrade polystyrene and generate biodegradable waste. Professor Jun Yang and his doctorate student Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu published the report on their findings in Environmental Science and Technology. The mealworms now carry the weight of humanity's hope to dig their way out of the piles of plastic trash that occupy landfills world wide - in their stomachs.

In an interview with CNN Wei-Min Wu was ecstatic about the possibilities of the findings he and his colleagues had made.

"The findings are revolutionary. This is one of the biggest breakthroughs in environmental science in the past 10 years."
In a press release he had also stated that the findings would open "a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem." A problem that has been exacerbated by the lack of proper recycling habits by humans the world over. Although Upworthy did explain that it is not entirely the fault of humans as while the recycling process has come a long way, it is still not perfect. Another study revealed that there is only so many times that plastic materials like those used to make soda bottles can be recycled.

The research studied 100 mealworms as they consumed 34 to 39 milligrams of Styrofoam every day, which considering it takes 453,592 milligrams to equal one pound, may not seem like such a great feat by itself. Considering the fact that scientists determined that the mealworms' overall health was not affected in any negative way and that their waste product is biodegradable the far reaching implications are stellar. They saw that larvae on a normal diet of bran were no healthier than those existing on a Styrofoam only diet.

Half of the eaten Styrofoam was converted to carbon dioxide about 12 to 24 hours after eating Styrofoam while the remaining plastic was passed as small droppings of biodegraded fragments. The studies showed that this waste was safe enough to even be used soil for plants and crops. It is this safety that makes the study a revolutionary one, there does exist other insects that consume plastic, like the cockroach, but none were found to produce biodegradable waste.

Researchers do have to find the perfect biodegrading environment though, since when the worms were fed antibiotics before given the plastic, the plastic did not degrade.

"The most important part is understanding that the mealworm's gut is so efficient in degrading plastic. The bacteria is essential. The mealworm's gut environment is very important."
The image that may have formed in readers minds that mealworms can be released in their thousands to clean up landfills one bite at a time is unfortunately not very realistic given their rate of chewing. However, if the chemical in the stomachs of the mealworms can be reproduced then that would be a giant leap forward in clearing our landfills.

Landfill overflowing with non-biodegradable plastic
Landfill overflowing with non-biodegradable plastic

Of course, considering the fact that the United States produces about 33 million tons of plastic every year and with less than 10 percent of that plastic being recycled it won't be a magic cure. Recycling cannot be replaced by mealworms and their guts, proper plastic management is still the best way to solve our mounting trash problems.

[Photos Courtesy of UniversalImagesGroup/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images]