As waste centers fill with non-degradable plastic bags and humans produced 311 million tons of plastic in 2014 alone, scientists are set to working on a solution to the plastic problem. Though plastic is wonderful in its durability and versatility, making it a favorite of the packaging industry, it has let to unseemly sights of waste. One solution, as scientists recently discovered could lie within a type of caterpillar known as the waxworm.
The discovery was made accidentally by Spanish research Federica Bertocchini who is a part-time beekeeper. Waxworms are known to enjoy munching on beeswax (literally) and so Bertocchini is used to removing the critters from her hives. One day, though, she set the waxworms in a plastic bag to be dealt with later and discovered the waxworms had eaten their way out.
While other scientist have found fungi and bacteria that are plastic-busting organisms, Bertocchini found that her waxworms ate away much quicker than previous findings. Bertocchini was curious, however, if the creatures were just biting or digesting the plastic. To test it, she processed the waxworms into a paste and rubbing it against a plastic film, which did degrade. Bertocchini eventually teamed with Cambridge University biochemists for further research and the team published their findings in Current Biology.
There are some naysayers, though. Via The Atlantic:
An army of bag-chewing caterpillars might consume a lot of plastic, but they would also end up releasing small fragments or microplastics into the environment, which can “pick up toxins like a sponge, transport these toxins up the food chain, and can cause harm to the environment and human health,” [Michigan State’s Ramani Narayan] says. “Biodegradation isn’t a magical solution to plastics waste management.”
Bertocchini emphasized the goal shouldn’t be to produce a platoon of these waxworms, but to identify the enzyme that allows them to break down the plastic and try to replicate it from there. Hopefully, should scientists isolate that, we might be able to turn our mountains of trash into molehills.