This mealworm eats plastic for breakfast. Could it clear landfills? Maybe.
For years, dealing with plastics has been a problem that we’ve pushed under the carpet. Or more accurately, stuffed into landfill sites, where they’re out of sight and out of mind. You may think just piling stuff up out the way isn’t the best possible solution, and you’d be right. But successive governments’ policies have been to shrug, say “what are you going to do” and carry on doing it.
Turns out help may be at hand from the most unlikely of sources: mealworms. Plastics were previously thought not to be biodegradable, but it turns out that they can be broken down relatively painlessly with a little help from the bacteria in the worms’ guts.
“Eating just a pound of styrofoam would take these 100 mealworms around 33 years.”
The study comes out of Stanford University, where 100 mealworms consumed the fad diet of 34-39 milligrams of styrofoam each day. The result was that around half was converted into carbon dioxide, while the rest were released as biodegraded droppings – droppings that appear safe to use as crop soil. The mealworms proved just as healthy as ones fed on a regular mealwormy diet.
You’ve got to hope they’re hungry. There’s a lot of plastic in the world for them to get through, and going by those figures, eating just a pound of styrofoam would take these 100 mealworms around 33 years. Maybe 30 if they get greedy.
But of course I’m being facetious: the real discovery here isn’t the mealworm’s dietary habits, but the fact that there’s something in the worm’s gut that can break down plastic. If this can be harnessed adequately, we could quickly break down tons and tons of previously forgotten plastic.
The next step for the scientists is to make sure that plastic-fed mealworms don’t have any impact further up the food chain. Mealworms may be okay eating plastic, but will larger animals that feed off them be? Fingers crossed that no problems emerge and a solution is in sight.
“Cockroaches, ants, spiders and millipedes may not do much individually, but they can cumulatively consume 950kg of food waste each year.”
If nothing else, it’s a friendly reminder that A) nature can be amazing and B) sometimes it can offer solutions to human-built problems. Last year, National Geographic reported that the bug life of New York City were doing a pretty good job cleaning up after slovenly humans. Cockroaches, ants, spiders and millipedes may not do much individually, but they can cumulatively consume 950kg of food waste each year – or around 60,000 hot dogs. True, the world record for humans is 69 hot dogs in ten minutes, but to be fair, we’ve had considerably more practice at doing stupid things.
We just need every other organisms on the planet to pick up the slack, and start eating everything we wasteful humans have had enough of. Then we’ll be golden.
Image: Samuel Mann used under Creative Commons