Plastic eating worms might help reduce the environmental impact of garbage

(Next Media Online) – Researchers led by scientists at Stanford University in U.S. and Beihang University in China have found that the mealworm can safely biodegrade various types of plastic, Stanford News reported.

Americans discard about 33 million tonnes of plastic every year, less than 10 percent of which gets recycled.

A solution to this problem may be the mealworm – the larvae form of the darkling beetle –

which researchers in an ongoing study found can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene.

The bacteria in the mealworm’s gut is able to biodegrade the plastic as part of its digestive process.

Researchers found that 100 mealworms were able to eat between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam per day, which is about the weight of a small pill. The worms converted about half of the Styrofoam into carbon dioxide, while they excreted the bulk of the remaining plastic as biodegraded fragments.

Worms on the plastic diet remained healthy, and their droppings appeared to be safe for use as soil for crops. According to a Stanford University press release, the study is important because it contradicts the belief that Styrofoam is a non-biodegradable type of plastic.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,”

Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, said in a statement.

According to Christian Science Monitor, the bacteria that allows mealworms to digest Styrofoam safely was originally discovered in 2009 by a Taiwanese high-school student named Tseng I-ching. However, he was not able to find out how the process occurs.

SOURCES: Stanford University, Science Alert, Environmental Science and Technology, The Christian Science Monitor