Worms that eat plastic could help clean landfills

Researchers from Stanford University have been working with researchers from China on a novel way to help remove Styrofoam plastic that is found in landfills around the world. The researchers have found that common mealworms can safely biodegrade various types of plastic, including Styrofoam. Meal worms might be familiar to anyone who has owned a lizard of some sort, but foreign to those who haven't.

A mealworm is the larval form of a darkling beetle. The worm can survive on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene according to research engineer Wei-Min Wu. The worms have been found to have microorganisms in their gut that is able to degrade the plastic during the digestion process.

Wu believes that the discovery is a new way that the global problem with plastics pollution could be solved. Each year in the US alone 2.5 billion plastic foam cups are discarded along with 33 million tons of plastics each year. During the research the team observed 100 mealworms that are between 34 and 39mg of Styrofoam.

That is equal to the weight of a small pill per day. About half the consumed material was converted to carbon dioxide as would be done with any other food source.

The excrement that contained what was left resembled rabbit pellets and appears safe for use as soil for growing crops. This discovery is important because Styrofoam was thought to be non-biodegradable and presented a significant challenge for the environment.

SOURCE: Stanford