We all know that plastic degrades super slowly, which is why it’s such a big problem that we’re dumping millions of tons of it into landfills every year—not to mention all the stuff that just ends up as litter or floating in the ocean.
But researchers at Stanford found a way to speed up the process of breaking down Styrofoam and other types of polystyrene, with help from mealworms. It turns out, these worms can not only digest polystyrene, but can actually subsist on a diet exclusively made up of it.
Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering found that mealworms, which are the larvae of the darkling beetle, have microorganisms in their digestive tracts that allow them to break down the plastic.
I know you’re probably thinking: but how toxic is the resulting worm waste? Well, according to Wu, the waste is safe to use as soil on crops. The other by-product of the process is carbon dioxide, which is the case for anything the meal worms eat. And the plastic-eating worms didn’t appear to be less healthy than worms eating a more natural diet.
The process is fairly slow. The lab found that 100 mealworms eat 34 to 39 milligrams of polystyrene per day, which is equivalent to the weight of a small pill. The findings have been published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The researchers hope that further study of the worms’ gut bacteria will lead to the real breakthrough for managing this type of plastic waste, which can in theory be recycled but facilities that have the capacity to do so are quite scarce.
The researchers also intend to follow the plastic-eating worms up the food chain, and study the health of animals that prey on Styrofoam-munching mealworms.
While this finding definitely falls into the nature-blow-my-mind category, I do worry about how this information will be used in the hands of the plastics industry. Of course, we should be looking for better ways of cleaning up the environmental problems that we have, but I don’t think mealworm lunch is a good justification for single-use foam cups and takeout containers.