Worms That Feast On Plastic

May 8, 2017 By James H, Writer Intern
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Plastics are a big part of our lives. From plastic bags to plastic bottles, plastics in electronics and more, they are everywhere.

Unfortunately, while plastic is very convenient, it also is the cause of a major waste pollution problem. Only a third of plastics end up recycled, and millions of tons of plastic waste still make up about 20 to 25% of landfills.

Even worse, plastics that don’t end up in landfills or recycling facilities are instead found littering the streets, beaches, and other environments worldwide. Not only do they ruin the natural beauty, they also threaten the survival of many animal species.

While this pollution problem is quite serious, there may be a hopeful solution. Scientists have discovered that the larvae of the wax moth might be able to help! Let's find out more.

The Basics Of Plastics

The issue with the plastic pollution problem comes down to a basic fact - plastics do not decompose easily and “disappear” from the environment.

Why isn’t plastic biodegradable? Most plastics are made from a carbon base and are thus mostly made of carbon atoms. When attached to other atoms like oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., these carbon atoms form small chains of atoms known as monomers. And when many monomers link up together, they form a long chain known as a polymer, or otherwise plastic. These polymers are then turned into the many plastic products we use daily.

Different combinations of atoms combine to form different monomers, and different monomers form different plastics. The complex links between the monomers in plastics are not easy to break down naturally. As a result, plastics are non-biodegradable and end up causing a big waste problem worldwide.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar

One solution to plastic pollution is of course, reducing, reusing, and recycling. By that we mean reducing the amount of plastic waste we create, reusing plastics over again, or recycling plastic in the recycling bin. Another solution is biodegradable plastics. These biodegradable plastics are made so that they can decompose more easily but still retain the same strength and durability as other plastics.

But for those plastics that aren’t biodegradable and are currently polluting the earth, the plastic eating worms could be the solution we need. These larvae, known as waxworms, are commonly found in beehives and used for fishing bait. The ability of these worms to digest plastic was found quite by accident by Federica Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper. While cleaning out the beehives, she had stored the worms in a plastic bag-- only to find that the caterpillars had eaten holes through the plastic bag!

Researchers are trying to understand the enzymes inside these worms that allow them to break down plastic, which may be similar to how they eat wax in beehives. This finding may just help us create similar enzymes on a larger scale and help us move closer to solving our world's plastic problems.