Monday, November 23, 2015

Mealworms and Styrofoam: How Nature Once Again Proves It Can Save Us

Researchers from both Stanford and China Beihang University have successfully proven that beetle larvae- commonly referred to as "mealworms" are an efficient way to break down polyethylene plastic: by eating it.  The discovery  does one important thing right away: it negates the classification of polyethylene plastics as "non-biodegradable", opening a huge door to research in how to eliminate the estimated 33 million tons of plastic waste the US produces annually (and that's only the US).

Using beetle larvae from various sources, the researchers fed them a daily diet of Styrofoam. According to their published results in Environmental Science and Technology:
"The Styrofoam was efficiently degraded in the larval gut within a retention time of less than 24 h. Fed with Styrofoam as the sole diet, the larvae lived as well as those fed with a normal diet (bran) over a period of one month."
Mealworms chow down on Styrofoam. The creatures break down the material
much faster than it normally takes for Styrofoam to break down on its own

The findings go on to report about half (47.7%) the byproduct of the mealworms' digestion was carbon dioxide and the rest biomass and non-toxic fecal matter. The average biodegradation was found to take 16 days; an astoundingly fast measurement compared to the eons Styrofoam takes to break down on its own.

While carbon dioxide as a byproduct will produce its own challenge of how to responsibly introduce it back into the ecosystem (it's not out of the realm of possibility to imagine a mealworm farm integrated into a controlled forest, is it?), the hope is with further research, labs can isolate the bioenzyme that enables mealworms to do this and utilize it on a grander scale to break down plastic waste en masse.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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