Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

You’ve seen the images before: piles of plastic bottles and bags washed up on what used to be a pristine beach somewhere. Or an animal that had a run in with a piece of plastic (remember that turtle with the straw from a few years ago?). Plastic is making our lives better, but some of it is causing issues for Mother Nature. A solution might be right around the corner.

Researchers at Stanford University have shown that mealworms may help solve our problems. In their experiments they’ve found mealworms can consume various types of plastic, like polystyrene, with no ill effects.

Okay. You’ve probably seen similar headlines off and on for the past few years about mealworms being able to eat plastic. This is nothing new and scientists have known this for quite some time. So, why hasn’t it happened already?

Well the issue is a little more complex than that.

WHY POLYSTYRENE?

Let’s start by taking a look at polystyrene. It’s okay if you don’t know what polystyrene is right offhand. Think StyrofoamTM. We come across polystyrene just about everyday. It’s used to make coffee cups, packaging, and CD jewel cases (even though nobody’s buying CDs anymore). It’s fairly cheap and can be molded into different shapes. It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of it.

Polystyrene typically has an additive called HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane). It’s a flame retardant, but it also happens to be toxic. Good for fire safety, but not so much for the environment.

HERE COME THE WORMS

It takes 3,000 - 4,000 mealworms about one week to devour a polystyrene cup. And what’s more interesting is they can do it without any negative effects. They don’t retain any of the harmful components and are, in fact, healthy.

Obviously, it would take a huge amount of mealworms to get rid of all the polystyrene waste. So, that’s not quite a viable solution. But it is still good news.

THE GOOD NEWS

First, it’s good news for farmers. Mealworms are commonly used as feed for livestock. This research means mealworms can be used to breakdown polystyrene and still be used as food. Because they don’t retain any of the toxic additives after about 48 hours, they can still be used as food. Maybe not such good news for the mealworms.

Secondly, it means a creative and long-term solution to our pollution problem may not be that far off. Will mealworms eat away all of our plastic waste? Nope. Not happening anytime soon. However, it means we have another avenue to explore

Most experts agree, though, that we should look to more viable solutions to our pollution problems. However, It’s still interesting to think that worms can eat your coffee cup.