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Mealworms may be the answer to world’s plastic waste

Plastics and Styrofoam have long been considered to not be biodegradable. This means that in a landfill, plastic products, from shopping bags to Styrofoam coffee cups and everything in between will still be sitting there long after we are gone.

The world embraced plastic because it was lightweight, versatile, moisture-resistant, fairly strong and most important, relatively cheap. Those are the good points. The biggest black mark against plastics is the staying-power of the material. Like the Energizer bunny, plastics just keep on going and going, degrading at such a slow rate that the globe is now in a plastics pollution crisis.

Almost 90 percent of seabirds have plastics in their intestines.

Almost 90 percent of seabirds have plastics in their intestines.
Ocean Revolution

Today, plastic pollution is an environmental hazard linked to water pollution and animal poisonings and deaths. When you think of the less than 10 percent of plastics that are recycled in any given year, all you have to do is look outside your door to find where the other 90 percent ends up. And it will eventually end up in our streams and rivers, and ultimately the oceans.

A revolutionary discovery is made
CNN News says it all started with an ongoing study by Stanford University researchers in collaboration with researchers at Beihang University in China, working on a project to see if mealworms would be able to safely biodegrade various types of plastic.

Incredibly, the scientists discovered that plastic products can be degraded by a squirmy mealworm, or to be precise, Tenebrio molitor Linnaeus. Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle, one of 20,000 species in the family, Tenebrionidae. While many of these beetles are considered pests, many animal lovers use mealworms to feed their small terrestrial reptiles, birds, and mammals.

A bowl of mealworms.

A bowl of mealworms.
Peter Halasz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The latest study follows on the heels of a previous study that revealed wax-worms, the larvae of Indian meal moths possessed microorganisms in their guts that break down polyethylene, which is a type of plastic product. The new research was a breakthrough, though, because Styrofoam, being non-biodegradable, was thought to be more problematic to the environment.

The researchers documented their case, feeding 100 mealworms 34 to 39 milligrams of Styrofoam each day, which is about the weight of an aspirin pill. A little more than half was converted to carbon dioxide, just like any other food they consume. The health of the mealworms was documented every day, and the mealworms fed on a diet of Styrofoam were just as healthy as the control group.

Researchers found that microorganisms in the mealworms guts transformed the plastic they ate into carbon dioxide, worm biomass, and biodegradable waste. This waste seemed safe to use in soil for plants and even crops, the studies said.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” said senior research engineer Wei-Min Wu of Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Wu added that it was critical to find other insects that can safely degrade plastics, turning them into biodegradable wastes.

This exciting breakthrough will help scientists to determine what kind of enzymes are needed to break down and biodegrade plastics, as well as give manufacturers the added incentive to produce more environmentally friendly products.

This study was published in Environmental Science and Technology on September 22, 2015, and entitled: “Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms: Part 1. Chemical and Physical Characterization and Isotopic Tests.”

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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