Worms With Appetite for Plastic Could Revolutionize Recycling

Andrei Tapalaga

It turns out that worms love to eat plastic and it's even nutritious for themHung Vu/Univeristy of Queensland

If the current world crisis were not enough, we still have a major problem caused by plastic pollution that keeps on getting worse despite all the green initiatives presented by the United Nations (UN). It is true that the number of people that are aware of pollution and recycling has increased, but until the whole world is on board, nothing will really change.

From a realistic perspective presented by experts around the world, it is impossible to get most of the world to recycle, therefore a new solution must be found to put a stop to this crisis.

Scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia may have stumbled upon the solution humanity needs to combat pollution. A new study has shown that Zophobas morio, commonly known as humble larvae is able to digest waste plastic. Not only that but the "superworm" (as nicknamed by scientists) is able to thrive on a plastic-only diet.

The study focused on feeding humble larvae on a polystyrene diet only, known as one of the most damaging materials to our environment as it takes over 500 years to decompose. Due to the microbes inside the stomach of the worms, they are able to digest this material and even gain energy from it.

Dr. Chris Rinke from the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, mentioned that polystyrene leaches chemicals into freshwater sources around the world and worst of all breaks down into microplastics which we end up consuming.

“We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains. This suggests the worms can derive energy from polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes. Superworms are like mini-recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut,” (Quote by Dr. Chris Rinke)

This is incredible news as there is a large abundance of humble larvae and other compatible worms around the world. However, the researchers working on this project have taken it one step further by looking into finding a way to grow the bacteria found in the gut of the "superworms" and test its abilities to degrade plastic.

With the use of enzyme engineering, the scientists would be able to identify exactly what degrades this plastic and hopefully be able to produce a solution that would degrade polystyrene in seconds, and hopefully other types of waste plastic.

Experts are saying that there are many natural ways to degrade waste plastic that have not yet been tested. As per usual, the research, development, and implementation of natural recycling initiatives will requier an investment, one that most corporations are not interested in as they don't see any financial profitability.

Polystyrene is the most common material found in plastic waste and due to it being fairly cheap it is preferred among most manufacturers for anything really, from CD cases to disposable cutlery. A scary statistic is that we have 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world and from that total, 6.3 billion tons is trash waiting hundreds of years to degrade.

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