Plastic Eating Caterpillars Could Be the Future of Worldwide Waste Reduction


The U.S. plastics industry employs one million workers across the nation, but one new discovery can possibly add thousands of workers to this industry. 

Except they give a whole new meaning to what the term worker means. 

Instead, they're caterpillars that can eat plastic and may be able to help cut down on plastic waste across the world. 

Plastic bags are exceptionally harmful to the environment, and they can take anywhere between 15 to 1,000 years to completely break down depending on the environment. Not only does all this plastic clog waterways and landfills, they can cause harmful injuries to wildlife who mistake their color for food.

And this is where the small but mighty wax worm can help.

Federica Bertocchini, a biologist at the Spanish National Research Council, was cleaning out her beekeeping hives when she noticed a bunch of little honeycomb moth caterpillars. Also known as wax worms, these little caterpillars are attracted to beehives because they feast on their beeswax and live as parasites in the hive. They also lay their eggs in the honeycomb and can cause a huge problem for the livelihood of the bee colony. As she was cleaning out her hives, she put the wax worms in a plastic bag for safe keeping.

However, a couple minutes later she returned to the bag and it was full of holes and the wax worms were everywhere. So she decided to research if these bugs had actually evolved to eat plastic. Turns out, her hypothesis was correct.

In her study, Bertocchini teamed up with Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe from Cambridge University and placed 100 wax worms on polyethylene plastic and found that in the span of an hour, one bug created 2.2 holes. After 24 hours, the bugs consumed 92 milligrams of plastic. The scientists believe this is the equivalent of eating an average 5.5-gram plastic bag within one month.

On top of the 100 worm control group, the scientists wanted to make sure the chewing was actually causing the breakdown of the plastic. So, they took recently deceased worms, spread out the soft pulp of their digestive system, and watched. These liquid larvae ate through the material, proving the wax worms do have a plastic-digesting enzyme. 

Bertocchini, Bombelli, and Howe believe that these worms have evolved to consume plastic because of their diet heavy in beeswax, which has the same carbon bonds as polyethylene, the most common plastic in the world.

Despite environmentalists all over the world being thrilled at the news, some critics are quick to claim that these bugs are not an end all solution to our plastic pollution problem.

Ramani Narayan, of the University of Michigan, believes that by consuming only plastic, these bugs can introduce plenty of toxins into the food chain. And once the toxins are consumed by larger animals, the environment will become victim to even more poisonous pollution. 

“Biodegradation isn’t a magical solution to plastics waste management," Narayan simply explains to Dogo News

Additionally, Susan Selke, director of Michigan State University School of Packaging, is concerned of the health of these bugs if they were to be put in landfills to eat plastic. She believes the wax worms would not be able to survive because typical landfills don't have a sustainable source of oxygen. So with this in mind, the idea that the bugs can provide a sustainable method of plastic disposal will be thrown out. 

The next step for Bertocchini and her team is to find out exactly what digestive enzyme actually breaks down the plastic. They then hope to produce it at a high-scale level and release it into landfills, instead of releasing wax worm armies all over.

So with this in mind, even though pest control services in the U.S. were projected to reach over 12 billion dollars in 2016, these little bugs give a whole new meaning to "pest".

For full story, pick up a copy of the MONTH XX issue of The Allegan County News/The Union Enterprise/The Commercial Record or subscribe to the e-edition.

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