Styrofoam-eating worms could be the answer to plastic waste crisis

Study reveals how a species of mealworm can consume and also digest this plastic-like material


According to a 2012 report by Global Industry Analysts, plastic consumption is to reach 297.5 million tonnes by 2015. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
According to a 2012 report by Global Industry Analysts, plastic consumption is to reach 297.5 million tonnes by 2015. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: Remember the white, light-weight foam cups and plates you threw away after one use at the house-party? Mealworms, which are actually beetle larvae, were served the same styrofoam for dinner and they gorged on it!

Researchers at Stanford University have come up with a new study co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer at the university that reveals how a species of mealworm can consume and also digest this plastic-like material, universally deemed as the necessary evil, bringing us very close to solving the global plastic waste problem.

And the problem is gargantuan in a country like India with its masses of plastic waste generated every day.

In 2012, the Supreme Court had said that plastic poses a threat more serious than the atom bomb for the next generation after two Andhra Pradesh-based NGOs reported that 30-60 kg of plastic bags had been recovered from the stomachs of cows who confuse plastic bags for food.

Though India had banned plastic bags below 20 µm in thickness, way back in 2002, to prevent them from clogging the drains and choking the rivers, according to a CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) report released early this year, plastic waste generation in 60 cities of India is over 15,342 tonnes per day.

And there is literally nothing we can do with this waste.

Enter mealworms.

What happened in the lab:

100 mealworms ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam—about the weight of a small pill—every day and converted about half of it into carbon dioxide, as they would with any food source.

The best part is that within 24 hours, they excreted the remaining plastic after converting them into biodegraded fragments which appeared to be safe to be used as soil for crops.

The take away— mealworms can survive healthily on a diet of Styrofoam!

Is this a first?

No, waxworms have shown the way.

Earlier researches have shown the larvae of Indian mealmoths have microorganisms in their guts that can biodegrade polyethylene, a plastic used in products such as garbage bags.

But Styrofoam in particular was thought to be non-biodegradable and more hazardous for the environment and hence the new findings are valuable.

“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” said Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervises plastics research by Wu and others at Stanford, as quoted in Stanford News Service that broke the news. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”

What’s next?

Another area of research could involve searching for a marine equivalent of the mealworm to digest plastics, Criddle said. Plastic waste is a particular concern in the ocean, where it fouls habitat and kills countless seabirds, fish, turtles and other marine life.

Here are some shocking figures on plastic waste generation that will make us like these worms even more:

• In 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tonnes of trash and plastics comprise about 13% of that, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

• According to a 2012 report by Global Industry Analysts, plastic consumption is to reach 297.5 million tonnes by 2015. And why not? Plastic is almost unbreakable, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant and doesn’t pinch your pocket.

• Plastic garbage accumulating in sea and choking marine life is a growing concern with eight million tonnes of plastic trash ending up in the ocean in 2010 as per a new study.

If these slimy worms can put a stop to this unmanageable trouble, we won’t cringe at their sight as often.

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