Styrofoam has been the world’s go-to packaging: it’s inexpensive, lightweight, and unfortunately for the planet incredibly resilient to breaking down. It can sit in landfills unchanged for centuries.
Genius researchers think they’ve found a solution that could mark something beautiful for getting rid of this plastic waste: fancy mealworms who eat styrofoam for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The teams at Beihang University in China and Stanford University put larvae of the American beetle on diet of the plastic stuff. After eating it, they were just as healthy as their pre-styrofoam days.
How do they work this magic? The little guys have an enzyme in their digestive track that churns the plastic into organic compounds. Whatever they don’t digest as nutrition they expel as biodegradable goodness that makes its way back into surrounding soil. The team calculated that 48% of the carbon in the styrofoam was released from the worms as carbon dioxide. 49% of it was excreted into the biodegradable compounds. The whole process took sixteen days, way better than the centuries it now takes to breakdown the plastics.
The team’s findings mark what might be a revolutionary solution to our global plastic waste problem (styrofoam comes from the polystyrene plastic family). Next they’re excited explore if these little worm heroes also have the skills to break down other plastics including the ones that make up all the microbeads wrecking our oceans.
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