Science and Technology

Plastic-Eating Worms

Can insects save the planet from plastic?

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WHAT IT IS

  • Scientist and beekeeper, Federica Bertocchini, discovered a potential solution to quickly decompose plastic. [National Geographic]

  • Waxworms have the ability to decompose plastic due to their wax-based diet. Wax and plastic share similar chemical structures. [NPR]

  • Waxworms are able to break down polyethylene in 40 minutes. This is a feat unheard of from other live organisms. [The Economist]

  • It all started when Bertocchini noticed the waxworms infesting her beehives. She placed the larvae insects in a plastic bag to get rid of them.

  • After tending to her hives, she noticed the worms ate their way through the plastic bag.
  • This led her to conduct multiple experiments on her own and eventually with a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge. [The Atlantic]

WHY IT MATTERS

 

With plastic consumption concerns entering daily conversation, the caterpillars present a hopeful option for reducing the amount of plastic laying in land dumps or in the oceans, as well as help us reduce our CO2 emissions from our carbon footprint.

THE ENTHUSIASTS

Science rules

When Bertocchini spread a paste made of deceased waxworms onto plastic, she found after 14 hours, 13% of the plastic had been decomposed into ethylene glycol, showing that a chemical in the worms shreds the plastic rather than the insects just eating it. [Scientific American

 

 

The very helpful caterpillar

While hopefuls acknowledge the inefficiency of making thousands of caterpillars eat plastic, the enzyme in the caterpillars could potentially be used in a liquid used to combat plastic waste. [NPR

 

 

Options abound

One of Bertocchini’s fellow colleagues, Paolo Bombelli, noted that the caterpillar enzymes can be used for massive waste removal through spraying the chemical on landfills or infusing it into underwater flora. [The Telegraph] 

THE CAUTIOUS

Backwards thinking

While the discovery of plastic eating larvae warrants potential and makes for an entertaining story, the issue of plastic waste should focus more on efforts to recycle and produce less rather than relying on the guts of a caterpillar. [National Geographic

 

 

Grubs versus greenbacks

The cautious ones say that even if waxworms prove to be a practical method of plastic waste removal, they must be cost-effective enough to compete with other recycling processes. [Chemical & Engineering News]

 

 

Easier said than done

Christopher J. Howe, one of the researchers working alongside Bertocchini, stated that any hopeful results could take years to come to fruition for public use. [The New York Times

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • In September of 2017, a team of German scientists expressed doubt on Bertocchini's findings, saying significant steps in her methodology are missing. [Science Daily]

  • Plans for follow-up experiments by Bertocchini meet financial obstacles due to Spain's lack of sufficient funds for research and science grants. [Chemical and Engineering News

  • There is a fungus in the rainforest that is able to eat plastic on a large scale. [Smithsonian]

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Watch these caterpillars devour plastic here.

  • New evidence on exposure to phthalates and bisphenols, two chemicals found in plastic, can affect fetal development or early childhood years. Read more here.

  • How would waxworms and their biodegradable abilities be used if this was a viable option?

  • How much would the new biotechnology cost?

Key Vocabulary