Plastic-Eating Worms Being Studied in Australia

We recently ran a blog post discussing a German research project involving an enzyme capable of breaking down PET plastic in record time. That story was amazing in and of itself. Now we learn of another project in Australia. This one involves plastic-eating worms that seem to thrive on polystyrene. Everywhere we look it seems like nature is providing the answers we need to the industrial scrap plastic problem.

For clarity’s sake, the worms in question really aren’t worms from a biological standpoint. They are called superworms, but they are actually the larvae of the darkling beetle. The main concern right now is not the name. What matters is that these little creatures not only eat polystyrene, but they can subsist on a diet of nothing but polystyrene.

It’s Plastic Foam

Polystyrene is essentially a foam plastic. It is the same foam plastic that electronics come packed in. The material is used to make everything from foam cups to plates. Most of it ends up in landfills because polystyrene is notoriously difficult to recycle at a profit. That may be changing thanks to research going on Down Under.

University of Queensland scientists recently wrapped up studies involving the larvae and their diet. In the lab, larvae were divided into three groups and studied for three weeks. One group was fed exclusively polystyrene, a second group was given a bran-based diet, and the third group was put on a fasting diet – whatever that means.

The superworms on the polystyrene diet survived the three-week test. More importantly, they actually put on weight as well. That is pretty amazing. It is not often that one imagines plastic having nutritional benefits. But that’s the way nature is. Some creatures in the natural world eat some pretty odd things.

Briefly getting back to the superworms, they are commonly used as reptile food in Australia. Feed them polystyrene and they become bigger, healthier larvae to send up the food chain. In the meantime, the scientists now have plans to analyze the bacteria in the creatures’ stomachs in hopes of explaining how they digest and make nutritional value from polystyrene. This could lead to more interesting discoveries in recycling industrial scrap plastic and other plastics.

Recycling With Bugs

This sort of thing fascinates us as recyclers. When we pick up industrial scrap plastic, we put it through a series of choppers and grinders to reduce it to material we call regrind. Our mechanical process isn’t anything fancy, and there is no advanced science involved. It certainly gets the job done, but there is something to be said about biological recycling.

In effect, the Australian researchers are recycling with bugs. It is probably not all that different from reducing pesticide use by introducing certain bugs that prey on pests. Let them do their thing and you protect the crops without having to deal with chemicals.

Recycling polystyrene with bugs should ultimately keep a lot of that plastic out of landfills. It also eliminates the need to employ chemical recycling. You get to produce nice, healthy bugs that provide an excellent source of food for reptiles in captivity. Everybody wins – figuratively speaking.

Solving the Industrial Scrap Plastic Problem

We like to think that research projects like the one in Australia are being combined with our efforts to solve the plastic problem. Plastic going into landfills will not be eliminated in just a year or two. It is an ongoing process. But by selling us your industrial scrap plastic, you can contribute your part to solving the problem as well. Give us a call if you think you have plastic waste we can use. Tell us what you have and let’s see if we can make a deal.