Finding the bugs and bacteria that will dine on our debris
While petroleum products are made from oil extracted out of the ground, they become a huge problem when we try to put them back there. With the average American throwing away 185 pounds of plastic a year, it’s obvious that landfills aren’t a sufficient way to “deal” with the waste we generate. Recycling is a start, but certain types of plastic products, like Styrofoam, can’t be recycled directly into new packing peanuts, coffee cups, etc. New research from Stanford University is instead looking into even greener options, like recycling those cups into plants. We just need to find the digestive tract to do it.
As neat as it would be if we could eat a disposable coffee cup like some sort of caffeinated bread bowl, mealworms have been found to be much better suited to the task. Darkling beetle larvae were found to consume up to 39 milligrams of polystyrene per day. Since they are truly digesting the plastic, the waste products are the worms’ usual mix of carbon dioxide and droppings that will hopefully prove suitable for gardening and farming, thereby potentially making into our stomachs some day. While the worms are promising, researchers are also looking into their microbiomes to try to isolate the exact gut bacteria that are breaking up the Styrofoam. If they could be cultivated outside the worms, it would be a more efficient method for processing large amounts of waste.
More plastic to go around
The mealworms are part of a growing search for biological agents capable of reducing our plastic waste footprint. They join the ranks of waxworms, larvae of Indian mealmoths, who have already been found to carry bacteria that eat polyethylene, the key ingredient in many plastic bags. Beyond terrestrial biodegraders, researchers also hope to find a bacteria capable of breaking down the growing collection of plastic trash in the oceans, although anything in the ocean would be harder to control than bacteria kept in a processing facility. To avoid yet another entry in the list of mis-managed invasive species, the ultimate goal would be to start engineering plastics that use some of the bacteria’s enzymes to break down more safely on their own, before the worms, moths and bacteria are really needed.
Source: Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste, Stanford researchers discover by Rob Jordan, Stanford News Service