Every year, 6.4 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean. On land, plastic gathers in landfills, on beaches and in sensitive ecosystems all around the world. In America alone, we throw away 33 million tons of plastic per year and we show no signs of slowing down. Now, new research shows the tiny mealworm might just help us solve our massive plastic problem. Scientists at Stanford have discovered that the humble mealworm can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other polystyrene.
According to two studies co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer at Stanford, not only do the worms eat and survive on a Styrofoam diet, but microorganisms in the worms’ guts biodegrade the plastic during the digestion process. The worms converted about half of the Styrofoam they were fed into carbon dioxide, as they would with other food sources. The other half was excreted as tiny pellets of biodegradable material that, Wu said, appeared to be safe to use as soil for food crops.
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Though researchers have previously shown that waxworms can biodegrade the plastics used in filmy products such as trash bags, this new finding is notable because polystyrene was thought to be non-biodegradable. “There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” said Craig Criddle, a professor who supervised Wu’s research. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”
More research is needed to understand how the bacteria inside mealworms are able to biodegrade plastic, but the findings could be a significant step forward in solving our mounting problems with trash.
Lead images via Yu Yang, mealworm image via Pengo.