Science Alert (citing Environmental Science & Technology) shows us a new way to think about chucking out all that delicious “non-biodegradable” garbage:
Researchers led by Stanford University in US and Beihang University in China found that the mealworm – the larval form of the darkling beetle – can safely subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other kinds of polystyrene, with bacteria in the worm’s gut biodegrading the plastic as part of its digestive process.
“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” co-author Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, said in a statement.
In the study, 100 mealworms ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam each day, converting about half into carbon dioxide and the other excreting the bulk of the rest as biodegraded droppings. They remained healthy on the plastic diet, and their droppings appeared to be safe for use as soil for crops.
Compared to the amount of plastic people go through every year, the mealworms’ capacity to process our waste product might not sound like much, but further research could help us engineer more powerful enzymes for plastic degradation, including processing other kinds of currently impervious plastics, including polypropylene, microbeads, and bioplastics.