This site is not optimized for your browser. Please view from Chrome 29+, Internet Explorer 11+, Mozilla Firefox 28+ or Safari 6.1+.
instagram
youtube
Starwood Logo

Website Terms of Use

Updated Privacy Statement

© 2016 Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., All rights reserved.

Pull down to view the previous article
Articles

PLASTIC FANTASTIC: HOW WORMS COULD SAVE THE WORLD

By Celia Woolfrey (@towerofturtles)     19 Aug 2016

With the discovery that mealworms can thrive on a diet of plastic, could we be on the way to finding a better solution for dealing with waste?

It’s become second nature to sort rubbish into plastics, paper and ‘other’ for curbside recycling. But could we soon have a worm-assisted compost heap for plastics at home in the same way you might have a wormery for kitchen scraps? It’s a real possibility after the discovery by a Chinese-US research team that tiny mealworms—the larval form of the darkling beetle—can eat plastic and recycle it into ‘biodegraded fragments.’

In a series of experiments, researchers at Beihang University, BGI-Shenzhen and Stanford University discovered that one mealworm can happily chew through a pill-sized piece of Styrofoam a day—significant because, until now, Styrofoam was thought to be non-biodegradable and therefore a problem for the environment.

The worms converted about half the Styrofoam into carbon dioxide, which is normal, apparently, regardless of what they eat (grains or leaf litter). A day later, after microorganisms in the worms’ guts got to work, they pooped out the rest as mini droppings that are safe enough to use as soil for crops. The lab mealworms thrived on their steady diet of junk food with no noticeable ill effects.

The research is a breakthrough on many levels as it suggests a practical, low-tech method of dealing with plastic waste that doesn’t involve landfills or incineration. Currently, less than 10 percent of the 33 million tons of plastic thrown away in the US gets recycled; the equivalent figures for the UK and Australia are 24 percent of 5 million tons and 46 percent of 1.3 million tons, respectively.

‘Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,’ says Wei-Min Wu, senior research engineer at Stanford and a co-author with Jun Yang of Beihang University of two companion studies published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Wu and his co-researchers had already discovered that waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, have gut microorganisms that can break down thin plastic packaging. New avenues for research include seeing whether mealworms and other insects can biodegrade the microbeads (used in some toothpastes and exfoliants) that are currently wreaking havoc on marine life, or polypropylene (used in products ranging from textiles to cars).

In the end, though, the best way to deal with the plastic waste problem is to not use so much of it. Or to start building that mealworm compost heap.

How are plastics recycled in your hometown? Let us know with #momentumtravel.

Photo: Alamy

Celia Woolfrey
Celia Woolfrey (@towerofturtles)

Celia Woolfrey first went to school in Australia, then traveled from Sydney to Southampton by boat via the Pacific Islands. She now lives in London and works as a journalist, editor and author.

 

Subscribe to Momentum’s email list to be the first to hear about our latest news and features.

subscribe EMAIL ME

No comments yet

With thousands of breathtaking options on offer, deciding where to holiday in Indonesia can be hard work. That’s why we’ve come up with 10 simple questions to steer you towards your perfect island partner.

Pull up to view the next article