The Scary Solution to Our Plastic Pollution Crisis: Superworms

Hung Vu for the University of Queensland

Plastic is suffocating our environment. Around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste is thrown away each year with between 75 and 199 million tonnes floating in the oceans and endangering aquatic ecosystems, according to the UN. The problem is so severe that there are literal five patches of garbage strewn across the world’s oceans. The largest, in the Pacific Ocean, is twice the size of Texas and is affecting the health of millions of birds and sea animals each year.

Cleaning up plastic waste is a doable but extremely difficult task. The fundamental problem is that plastic is not biodegradable. It takes an unholy amount of time to break down, and when that happens, it releases microplastics that can enter our bodies through drinking water and food.

However, in recent years, worms and other insects have become unlikely heroes in our fight against plastic waste. Scientists have discovered that these creepy little robots have microbes in their gut that can digested polyethylene— the type of plastic used in shopping bags, shampoo bottles and containers. And now in a study published Thursday in the review Microbial genomicsresearchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have found that mealworm larvae, commonly known as superworms, have the ability to feed on polystyrene, a plastic used in styrofoam, plastic plates, cups and elsewhere.

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“There are few reports that insect larvae are actually quite good at damaging plastic and eating it,” Chris Rinke, a microbiologist at the University of Queensland and co-author of the study, told The Daily. beast. “That’s why we started with superworms because they’re much bigger than other insect larvae and we thought they would be better at breaking down plastics.”

To test this idea, Rinke and his team fed three groups of supervers either styrofoam, bran, or nothing over a three-week period. Within 24 hours, the polystyrene-fed superworms were heading to town with the plastic; at the end of the experiment, to the surprise of the researchers, these nearly two-inch-long larvae were positively thriving and had even gained weight.

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<p>Super worms eat plastic.</p>
<div class="inline-image__credit">Hung Vu</div>
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Super worms eat plastic.

Hung Vu

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Superworms eating plastic.

Saw hooked

Much like a human gut, insects have their own unique microbiome that plays a critical role in nutrition, physiology, and even behavior. When the supervers break down the polystyrene, the bacteria in their gut further digest the smaller pieces with enzymes that specialize in breaking down the plastic, Rinke explained.

The team is still trying to figure out exactly which enzymes facilitate the plastic lunch session. This information, Rinke said, could revolutionize the way we dispose of certain types of plastics, encourage recycling efforts and reduce plastics in landfills.

“You could have a big bioreactor, have the enzymes in there,” Rinke said. “So you would shred the polystyrene first and the enzymes could break down chemically [it] down. This scale is much better than having big batches of super worms.

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Bryce K. Locke