Mealworms Converts Styrofoam Into Biodegradable Matter Usable For Soil

Mealworms are rich in protein, amino acids, potassium, and iron, and are highly remarkable creatures, especially for what they are capable of.

Think of a plastic foam cup. Around 2.5 billion of them are disposed by Americans annually. And yet, that sum is just a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic that Americans discard every year. Only up to 10% of it gets recycled, and what is left presents problems ranging from animal poisoning to water contamination.

In collaboration with researches in China, Stanford researches have discovered that mealworms can feed on Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene. This does not only mean that mealworms could live off the 33 million tons of plastic that are disposed every year, but it could also assist the recycling industry as the degradation of plastic occurs in the guts of these fantastic worms during digestion.

Understanding how bacteria within mealworms carry out this feat could potentially enable new options for safe management of plastic waste.

Published in Environmental Science and Technology, the experiment involved feeding 100 mealworms a small pill-sized portion of Styrofoam to eat every day. Researchers learned that the worms converted half the Styrofoam into carbon dioxide—which is also what they do with other food sources—and within 24 hours, they excreted the bulk of the remaining plastic as biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings.

A senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, Wei-min Wu, said that the mealworms that were fed Styrofoam were as healthy as those on a normal diet after a month, and their waste appeared usable for soil.

Wu informed Fusion that this 24-hour “degradation” is very rapid and that naturally, the degradation of plastics like Styrofoam may take decades or hundreds of years according to previous studies.

The previous studies were quite factual as the production of plastic is greater than how the natural environment could handle it.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem. The plastic being produced is far greater than the natural environment can handle. The accumulation of waste plastic in soil, landfills, rivers and especially in oceans has accelerated very rapidly.”

-Wei-Min Wu

More research is needed, however, to understand conditions favorable to plastic degradation and the enzymes that break down polymers. This, in turn, could help scientists engineer more powerful enzymes for plastic degradation, and guide manufacturers in the design of polymers that do not accumulate in the environment or in food chains.

Douglas McCauley, a marine biology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently told the BBC that animals are threatened by polystyrene foam that could get lodged in their intestines.

“If you think about how we worry about a mild blockage from eating the wrong thing, imagine eating a ball of Styrofoam,”

-Professor Douglas McCauley

Professor McCauley added that when animals such as sea turtles or fish eat polystyrene foam, they are basically eating “pollutant sponges,” and that these very creatures “may be ending up back on our tables.”

A recent study showed that man-made pollution such as Styrofoam is now found regularly in fish and bivalves being sold for human consumption. The study discovered “anthropogenic debris” in a quarter of individual fish sampled for sale in California markets and around one-third of sampled shellfish.

Thus, the introduction of mealworms for degradation could result in new methods of reducing plastic waste that’s already in the environment, and new types of bio-plastics that won’t accumulate on land or at sea.

Article adapted from <a href=”http://foundily.com”>Foundily</a>.