What’s grosser: A Styrofoam cup on the ground?
… Or a pile of mealworms?
Okay, okay… So the question isn’t entirely fair. After all, it’s not just one Styrofoam cup that we have lying around on the ground — it’s close to 33 million tons. Not just Styrofoam, either — all manner of discarded plastic, set to take thousands of years to degrade in giant trenches, or piles in the ocean.
If that pile of mealworms could help dissolve a pile of trash like this:
Then they might not be the hero we want, but the hero we deserve!
Because, truth be told, us Americans are pretty darn terrible at recycling. Each year, we throw away that aforementioned 33 million tons of plastic waste, only recycling maybe 10% of the total consumption of plastics. While this may not be entirely our individual faults (with modern recycling techniques being imperfect, at best), we still need to be mindful of the consequences: Plastics can take centuries to bio-degrade.
This is where our (slightly disgusting) wormy friends come in: Researchers have discovered a mealworm that eats Styrofoam, turning it into biodegradable feces while receiving all the nutrition they need!
Stanford University collaborated with Chinese researchers to find that 100 of these mealworms could consume about 40 mg of Styrofoam per day — which doesn’t sound like a lot, because it isn’t. The implications of this, though, are huge: Namely, this is the first time that insect poop has been totally biodegradable!
Whatever magic is happening in these little mealworms’ guts is turning hazardous plastic waste into biodegradable organic waste, and studying the worms’ guts may mean we can understand how to develop better recycling techniques!
For the time being the worms eat particularly slowly:
And it looks like that’s not going to change. However, we may be able to adapt the technology in their bellies to recreate an environment of our own to break down plastic, rather than relying on melting down old plastic bottles to form them into new ones. We could turn the plastic into biodegradable manure, totally safe for natural environments.
First things first, though: We have to get better at working together to recycle consistently and effectively. If our little mealworm friends can lend a hand, we may just be able to begin to reduce the tremendous amounts of trash we’re adding to the world each and every single day.