Science 3 min read

Can Plastic-Eating Bugs Solve our Plastic Waste Problem?

Teerasak Ladnongkhun / Shutterstock.com

Teerasak Ladnongkhun / Shutterstock.com

Researchers have identified a common insect that can eat sizeable holes in plastic bags. But, can these bugs solve our plastic waste problem?

The planet has a massive plastic waste problem.

Every year, roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.

It gets worse.

Plastics usually contain additives to make them more flexible and durable. On the flip side, the additives continue to extend the life of plastic products, even after they become litter.

As a result, it could take as much as 400 years to break down some plastics. Unfortunately, plastic production is not slowing.

According to National Geographic, production surged exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million by 2015. What’s more, researchers expect the numbers to double by 2050.

The resulting plastic pollution has become a global environmental issue. Although we are starting to replace plastics with more environmentally friendly options, we can also explore other natural solutions.

That’s where the wax worm comes in.

Using Wax Worms To Solve Our Plastic Waste Problem

In 2017, a developmental biologist, Federica Bertocchini, reported a common insect that can chew holes in shopping bags.

Wax moths lay their eggs in the beeswax found within beehives. While wriggling out, these caterpillars tunnel through combs, eating their way through the beeswax.

As you may have guessed, beeswax is similar to low-density polyethylene (LDPE) — a type of plastic used for shopping bags. Their carbon chain and hydrocarbon are almost identical.

Bertocchini explained:

“Since they eat wax, they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic.”

In a test, Bertocchini and other scientists noted that each worm created an average of 2.2 holes per hour. Overnight, 100 wax worms ate up 92 milligrams of a plastic shopping bag.

Further studies reveal that the waxworms’ gut bacteria can degrade and process plastic as a food source. This action results in a biodegradable by-product of glycol, which scientists can further reduce using antibiotic treatments.

Now for the big question: can these “plastivores” solve the plastic waste problem? It’s still up for debates.

Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute admitted that the discovery is fascinating. However, the marine biologist doesn’t think it’ll address the plastic pollution issues.

In an email to National Geographic, Mincer said:

“In my opinion, although this is an amazing natural history story and wonderful academic exercise, it is not a solution for disposing of polyethylene as this is throwing away money.”

Meanwhile, Bertocchini believes that identifying the precise enzyme that breaks down polyethylene is vital for any future work.

Read More: Microfiber Pollution: how our Clothes Harm Marine Life

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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