How the Mealworm’s Appetite for Plastic Saved the Day

How the Mealworm’s Appetite for Plastic Saved the Day

Everyone knows the material known as Styrofoam poses a threat to the environment and our health. But did you know it is actually the fifth-largest source of hazardous waste in the U.S.?

styrofoam
Image by Matthijs | Flickr

Also known as Polystyrene, this toxic substance has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, the production of greenhouse gases, and damage to the ozone layer. However, one of the most challenging aspects of how to avoid plastic involves managing what’s already been created and discarded.

Granted, Styrofoam production has decreased significantly in recent years, but there is still a significant amount being produced abroad. It’s also lingering in landfills around the world. How to safely dispose of the plastic that’s already been generated, and which lies in landfills or has otherwise not been recycled, has been a conundrum among the eco-conscious for many years. However, that may all be about to change with the introduction of one small worm.

The Mealworm Solution

There is currently a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University who has found that mealworms can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other types of harmful polystyrene. Yes, worms – specifically, the larvae of the darkling beetle.

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that after they eat this material, these worms convert about half of the toxin into carbon dioxide. In addition, they excrete waste that is both biodegradable and valuable for use in crop soil.

While on this plastic diet, the mealworms seemed to be just as healthy as larvae eating their ordinary food. Considering Styrofoam has always been deemed non-biodegradable and destined for the landfill, this is a significant discovery.

This finding could not have come at a better time, as the waste industry continues to debate how Styrofoam should be managed. This is also a potential answer to the question of whether it should be banned entirely.

While some think the material still has value in certain areas, opponents argue it harms the environment and creates negative ecological effects. These plastic-eating worms could change all that and potentially solve the growing problem of plastic waste in general.

There is substantial evidence of these worms’ ability to degrade plastics within their guts and churn out waste that’s actually helpful to the environment. Could it be true? And if so, what are the larger implications?

Implications

One thing scientists are wondering is whether this ability extends beyond the mealworm and into a “marine equivalent” that could possibly digest plastic debris in the oceans. Given the amount of waste floating in the oceans, killing wildlife and destroying food chains, such a discovery could provide some relief to another polluted ecosystem.

wax worms
Waxworms | Image by ,Wisconsin DNR | Flickr

Within the digestive process of this larvae, there is an enzyme that has the surprising ability to break down polymers. If this science is applied in a pragmatic way, it could be applied to the larger plastic question.

Earlier research determined that waxworms, the larvae of Indian meal moths, have the ability to digestively break down a slightly different plastic material called polyethylene, which is often used in trash bags. While this information was significant, it is eclipsed by the mealworm discovery, as Styrofoam has always been considered far more detrimental to the environment.

However, studying the processes of both types of larvae in conjunction with what scientists know about other insects could lead to some extremely useful discoveries on how to manage massive waste generated by the textile and automotive industries. The problem is big, but perhaps it can be solved by something extremely small.

Next Steps

That said, more research is needed. Understanding what conditions are favorable to plastic degradation and precisely how the insects’ enzymes work will take time and money. Guiding manufacturers towards an understanding of how this discovery may help their businesses could be the first step in obtaining funding and could inspire more people to take the research seriously.

Once the exact mechanism of the worms’ digestive tract is clarified, researchers may also be able to design nontoxic plastic. Such a substance might biodegrade in a way that is even more compatible with the mealworm digestive system, increasing the animals’ potential productivity.

More research needs to be conducted before this technique is implemented on a wide scale. Scientists plan to study the health of all of the animals that eat the plastic-munching mealworms. This will help to ensure the material does not wreak havoc in other ways (or in other digestive tracts).

It is important to remember that all things, especially in the natural world, are connected. Just because this particular larvae survives and thrives does not necessarily mean their consumption of plastics won’t adversely affect the larger food chain.

So, while this discovery is encouraging, it should also be tempered with a dose of caution. Most importantly, it should not take the place of current recycling techniques and technologies or the ongoing need for vigilance and responsibility in a plastic-dominated world.

-Featured image by Hernan | Flickr

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