Plastic-Eating Wax Worms

(Source: Federica Bertocchini/Paolo Bombelli/Chris Howe)

State of global garbage

Research from former World Bank urban development specialists Dan Hoornweg and his colleagues Perinaz Bhada-Tata and Chris Kennedy have found that without transformational changes in how we use and reuse materials, the amount of garbage we throw away will continue to increase and will not peak this century. While developing countries still produce the majority of global garbage it is developing countries that are also increasing their production; they also found that the sooner Sub-Saharan Africa’s waste increase peaks, the sooner we will be able to determine when the world’s trash problem will decline.

The World Bank notes with grave concern that if business continues as usual solid waste generation will increase 70% by 2025 and by 2100 will reach 11 million tonnes per day globally. Moreover, the cost of dealing with such vast amounts of trash produced are increasing, putting enormous pressure on both governments and the environment. Therefore, any innovative means in dealing with garbage will likely reduce these pressures and move us towards a scenario that involves a brighter and greener future. It is a highly noteworthy find then that a particular kind of worm has been found that eats plastic – a major component of non-biodegradable garbage.

The wax worm

Spanish National Research Council scientist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was fortunate to discover that worms in the wild that normally feed on wax also have a voracious appetite for devouring plastic. Bertocchini realised the discovery when she released a worm infestation from one of her beehives into a plastic bag in her garbage; the worms were able to escape by eating their way out of the plastic bag.

The Galleria mellonella, or wax worm as it is known, can eat upto 92 milligrams of plastic within 12 hours when atleast 100 of them are present. Until now, the only use of such worms was as premium fish bait, but their new found ability could present itself as a solution to one of our major global problems. The worms are able to break down polyethylene with the same enzymes they use to break down wax in the wild. The ramification of this great find is that scientists believe they could extract the gene responsible for the enzyme and put it into E.coli bacteria or marine phytoplankton in order to break down plastics in the wild. Additionally, large numbers of these worms could be bred and then set on plastic waste in order to help reduce it. However, this latter use depends on further research to figure out whether the worms were in fact eating plastic as food or just as a means of escape.

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