Every year, the world makes 21 million tons of polystyrene, the kind of plastic found in styrofoam cups, take out containers, CD cases, and packing peanuts.
Most of that ends up in landfills, in waterways, and on the streets — and stays there. Styrofoam isn’t biodegradable, meaning that it can’t be broken down or decomposed by bacteria or other organisms the way other trash can.
But a new discovery might help humans dig our way out of our massive pile of plastic trash. Researchers have found a tiny mealworm that can live off a styrofoam-only diet.
A larvae form of the darkling beetle has microorganisms in its guts that can biodegrade a type of plastic called polystyrene, according to two studies published in the Environmental Science and Technology.
In other words, the mealworm is able to recycle this type of plastic using its natural processes.
“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” Wei-Min Wu, a co-author of the study, said in a press release.
Below you can see the mealworms chomping their way through a block of styrofoam.
According to the press release, 100 mealworms could eat between 34 to 39 milligrams of styrofoam — about the weight of a small pill — a day. Wu told Tech Insider by email that the worms eating even make an audible “crunching sound.”
“You can hear the sound in the evening even [if the] incubator contains only 30 worms,” Wu wrote.
About 12 to 24 hours after eating styrofoam, the mealworms converted half of the styrofoam into carbon dioxide and passed the rest of the plastic as small droppings of biodegraded fragments.
You can see the droppings in the picture below.
Wu said in the press release that the droppings appeared to be safe for use as soil for crops, though more research has to be done on how the droppings might affect other animals. The mealworms who only ate styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet of bran, according to the paper.
These styrofoam-eating mealworms aren’t the only worms that can biodegrade plastics. Wu and other scientists have already discovered that waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, can also eat and biodegrade a type of plastic called polyethylene, which is used in plastic bags.
The researchers are also looking for marine animals that can biodegrade and digest plastic. Plastic waste is a real problem in the oceans. Plastic trash has accumulated in an area of the Pacific Ocean that’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Fish can mistake plastic trash for food, especially exfoliating microbeads that are used in facewash, which then collects in their stomachs, and eventually make it to your dinner plate.
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