We all know that plastics are polluting our environment, and lately, there have been many dire reports about the impact on the oceans.
Plastics appear everywhere, including the deepest part of the ocean, along our seashores and in a part of the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is two large areas with high levels of plastic trash. How much plastic is in these areas? Estimates are that there are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the vortex comprising about 80,000 tons.
Plastic recycling has expanded since the 1960s, but the amount we recycle hasn’t caught up to the amount we use. Some plastics aren’t recyclable. One plastic that’s a problem is polystyrene, a long chain polymer. Styrofoam is a common type of polystyrene. Among the almost 360 million tons of plastic produced worldwide in 2018, polystyrene accounts for 30 million tons. You can see how big the problem is.
A new report may offer a glimmer of hope. Scientists discovered the larvae of a beetle called Zophobas atratus can eat Styrofoam. This insect, along with the larvae of the mealworm and waxworm beetles, can break down this seemingly indestructible material.
The larvae of Z. atratus, dubbed the super worm, can degrade four times more of the polymer every day than the others. This beetle larva will not win any beauty contests, with its scary mouthparts and large size — it can be 2 1/2 inches long. At that size, we’re talking the “Schwarzenegger” of the larvae world.
In some experiments, scientists sealed the worms feeding on Styrofoam in a sealed glass container that had no carbon dioxide (CO2). After the bugs ate, the scientists tested the gases in the container and found that the worms converted almost 40 percent of the Styrofoam into CO2, a common gas in the air. Wow, that means the super worms converted this inert material into a breathable gas. What more could you ask of a recycling process?
So how do these worms break down this seemingly indestructible material?
When the scientists treated worms with an antibiotic to inhibit the worm’s intestinal microbiome, they stopped producing so much CO2. This suggests that a microbe in the worm’s gut was responsible for digesting the Styrofoam.
Termites can digest the cellulose in wood because a microbe in their gut provides a protein that degrades cellulose into the common sugar, glucose. Now scientists need to isolate the Styrofoam eating microbe, most likely a bacterium, that’s the source of this ability.
Once identified and isolated from the gut microbiome species, we could produce this microbe in large amounts and use it to recycle discarded Styrofoam. This could represent a new revolution in plastic recycling, especially if the microbe could be adapted to eat other plastics.
Call us tree huggers, but we think that biodiversity must be preserved so future discoveries that help humankind can be realized.
Hail to our friends, the worms and microbes.