Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste

Oct 7, 2015

Yu Yang

By Rob Jordan

Consider the plastic foam cup. Every year, Americans throw away 2.5 billion of them. And yet, that waste is just a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic Americans discard every year. Less than 10 percent of that total gets recycled, and the remainder presents challenges ranging from water contamination to animal poisoning.

Enter the mighty mealworm. The tiny worm, which is the larvae form of the darkling beetle, can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene, according to two companion studies co-authored byWei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Microorganisms in the worms’ guts biodegrade the plastic in the process – a surprising and hopeful finding.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” Wu said.

The papers, published in Environmental Science and Technology, are the first to provide detailed evidence of bacterial degradation of plastic in an animal’s gut. Understanding how bacteria within mealworms carry out this feat could potentially enable new options for safe management of plastic waste.

“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” said Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervises plastics research by Wu and others at Stanford. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”


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7 comments on “Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste

  • Yep its a shock. Also meal worms are edible, humans consume a lot of ’em ground up in their bread flour. Perhaps the mealies could be fattened up on Styrofoam and fed to chickens to produce eggs?



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  • In relation to using them to feed chickens or people

    The lesser mealworm is also a vector (transmitter) and serves as a reservoir for several poultry disease pathogens such as acute leukosis (Marck’s disease), fowl pox, numerous pathogenic Escherichia coli serotypes, several Salmonella species, and tapeworms.

    I’m sure there are ways around this as I know there are a number of chicken farmers who use them, but it would be a concern. I kept some darkling beetles in a reptile enclosure for my son as low maintenance pets for a month of so they are certainly prolific breeders, we ended up having to get rid of them, just got too many too quickly.



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  • Old engineering saying, garbage in, garbage out.

    i’d be wary of any of their waste as just transforming one kind of synthetic substance to another.



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  • Every year, Americans throw away 2.5 billion of them. And yet, that waste is just a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic Americans discard every year. Less than 10 percent of that total gets recycled, and the remainder presents challenges ranging from water contamination to animal poisoning.

    This is the problem. We shouldn’t need a worm to eat waste plastic, we need a human that doesn’t use it, or if they do, they recycle it.

    Maybe we need to develop a worm that eats the human who throws the plastic into the environment. This would be a long term solution.



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  • Polystyrene is (C8H8)n.

    There are no metals to worry about. No nitrogen even. It burns to carbon dioxide and water and having the sigma bonds of a benzene ring, in air burns incompletely producing carbon also. Other known bacterial biodegrading mechanisms lead essentially to this but also some intermediate hydrocarbons. In fairness, its not a compound from which one would expect too much trouble in disassembly…

    The only possible problem appears to be the content of the meal worm fecula (faeces) which were not analysed (as far as the abstract was concerned). Half the polystyrene goes to CO2, half a percent is simply turned into lipids in the mealworm (or its bacterial) cell walls, the remainder being excreted. This is where unknown hydrocarbons might exist. This would be separated out in any food preparation process and if any further concerns were got from fecula analysis the meal worms could briefly be flushed out with a healthier last meal, maybe the remains of the burger in the polystyrene box…

    I wonder if they’d make a good burger??



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  • In fairness PS is mostly replaced by cardboard these days used in food packaging. It remains an essential shock absorber, thermal insulator, and, closed cell buoyancy material, though. Alternative, foamed polyurethane, (with that hint of urea and therefore nitrogen in the name) create hydrogen cyanide when burned and have a more problematic recycling story. PS is comparatively benign in a fully realised circular economy. (High temperature or oxygen assisted burning make a good fuel substitute with no solid residue.)



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