Mealworms that eat plastic could help us save the environment

Researchers at Stanford have discovered that mealworms can eat Styrofoam without accumulating toxins in their bodies. This new discovery could have important implications for the future of plastic recycling, as it proves mealworms fed on Styrofoam would be safe to use as animal feed.
Mealworms
The discovery that mealworms can eat polystyrene was only made in 2015. Photo: Wilhelm Thomas Fiege/Insektenwirtschaft.de via Wikimedia Commons

A recently published study by researchers at Stanford University has shone further light on mealworms’ ability to eat Styrofoam.

We’ve known mealworms can eat Styrofoam, a form of polystyrene, for a few years now. The original discovery was made in 2015, but scientists were unsure whether the plastic has a detrimental effect on the tiny worms.

Now it’s been confirmed that mealworms can indeed eat polystyrene without experiencing any detrimental effects whatsoever.

The exciting new discovery

The results of the new Stanford study were published in Environmental Science & Technology on 5 December.

Specifically, the researchers revealed that mealworms digest polystyrene, excreting it as a combination of partially degraded fragments and carbon dioxide.

Additionally, the study showed that mealworms are able to separate a common fire retardant, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), from the polystyrene, without absorbing it into their bodies.

Mealworms
Mealworms fed on Polystyrene could theoretically be used as a safe animal feed. Photo: Hans Splinter via Flickr

HBCD is often added to polystyrene, but there is increasing evidence that it poses a significant health risk. Studies have shown that it is neurotoxic and can cause endocrine disruption.

As a result of the study we now know that within 24 hours mealworms excrete 90% of the HBCD from Styrofoam they have eaten.

According to reports by the Daily Mail, the research team believes that the plastic found in the mealworms’ gut “likely played an important role in concentrating and removing the HBCD.”

Implications for recycling

Styrofoam is a common material used as packaging or insulation. But it is currently expensive to recycle, mainly because of its physical volume and low density.

Now, thanks to the new Stanford study, there may be a new, environmentally friendly way of breaking down the plastic.

Because we now know that mealworms can eat Styrofoam without accumulating any harmful toxins in their bodies, we may have a new way of recycling the plastic.

Polystyrene packaging material
Polystyrene is a common packaging material. Photo: Acdx via Wikimedia Commons

Not only can the mealworms get rid of waste Styrofoam, they could also be used as a safe, high-protein food source for livestock and other animals.

But the researchers have made clear that the HBCD does still pose a health risk, even after being excreted by the worms.

A statement says, “the researchers acknowledge that mealworm-excreted HBCD still poses a hazard, and that other common plastic additives may have different fates within plastic-degrading mealworms.”

Not a solution

Even though the new discovery is great news for efforts to reduce the negative effects of plastic pollution, it should not be seen as a reason to stop striving towards biodegradable plastics.

The researchers conclude that a long-term solution to plastic pollution will only be found in biodegradable plastics and other biodegradable materials.

Reducing our reliance on packaging would also go a long way to reducing the harmful effect of consumption on the environment.

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