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Tiny Wax Worms Might Be Nature's Answer To Human's Monstrous Plastic Problem

25 April 2017, 12:06 pm EDT By Andrew Norman Tech Times
A new way of degrading plastics at a much faster rate than the current processes may have been discovered. A study showed that tiny wax worms were quickly able to eat through plastic products and could be the solution.  ( CSIC Communications Department )

Around 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured each year globally. Plastic is not naturally biodegradable and pollutes the environment.

Environmental researchers have been persevering to find a way to dispose of the huge amounts of plastic and plastic products in an effective manner, without harming the Earth.

A new study has found that a caterpillar commonly bred for fish bait can chew through polyethylene (plastic) products at an impressive rate. Researchers assert that the worm, known as wax worms (Galleria mellonella), can make sizable holes through plastic in just 30 to 40 minutes.

Tiny Wax Worms: Nature's Answer To Plastic Pollution?

Federica Bertocchini, a scientist at the Spanish National Research Council, conducted the study. Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe from Cambridge University assisted CSIC's Bertocchini in the research.

The idea of using wax worms first occurred to Bertocchini when she was cleaning out her backyard bee hive. These worms had infested the hive and while cleaning it, Bertocchini placed them inside a plastic bag. An hour later, she discovered the sizable holes in the bag and the plastic eating worms missing.

Drawing inspiration from the incident, Bertocchini and her co-researchers started a study to figure out how the caterpillars were eating through the polyethylene. The scientists placed these wax worms on a sheet of plastic and recorded that each worm was able to create 2.2 holes per hour in the sheet.

Overnight, these plastic-eating worms were able to go through around 92 milligrams of a shopping bag. The researchers estimated that it would likely take 100 of these wax worms a month to go through a standard 5.5 gram plastic shopping bag.

The scientists also added dead wax worms to plastic and were surprised to see that even then the polyethylene bags were degraded. This suggested that the plastic-eating caterpillars were secreting some kind of enzyme or bacteria, which resulted in the degradation.

"If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable," Bombelli shared.

He added that the caterpillar was not essentially eating the plastic, but was using the chemical enzyme to break down polyethylene into ethylene glycol.

Plastic Pollution Problem

The excessive use of polyethylene in packaging and manufacturing of shopping bags has resulted in the rise of plastic pollution over the years. Even low density polyethylene bags take around 100 years to degrade completely. While the highest density plastic takes up to 400 years to disintegrate.

Scientists are optimistic that the wax worm research results would lead to some form of degradation process, which would be much faster than the current ones.

However, some researchers opine that reducing plastic pollution should not rely on degradation methods, but instead focus on recycling plastic bags and minimizing their production.

The research's results will be published in the next edition of Current Biology.

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