As the damaging effects of plastic pollution continue to increase, it’s growing increasingly necessary to take aggressive action against them. Recycling is one of the more conventional approaches to tackling the plastic waste problem, but it may not be effective enough. Scientists looking for ways to fight the pollution problem are now finding that mealworms might be useful in the process.
According to a study in Environmental Science & Technology, mealworms are able to consume plastics and convert them into carbon dioxide, rather than passing the plastics in their feces, as The Economist reports. A bacteria found in the guts of mealworms can help quickly break down polymers, the study found. Other research has found that they are also able to digest a plastic called polystyrene.
The research is especially important now, as plastics have growing, negative impacts on the environment as well as human health. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer who conducted a 2015 study on the topic found that nearly 19 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, and the number is expected to double by 2025. Plastic poses a threat to entire ecosystems, killing more animals, and puts human health at risk as microplastics make their way into the food chain.
Researchers studying the mealworms divided the insects into different groups. The groups of worms were given 1.8 grams of polystyrene, polyethylene, or both. Others received wheat bran to supplement their plastic diets. By the end of the 32-day experiment, more than 90% of the worms survived—the ones who were given wheat bran with their plastic did the best. Mealworms that were fed polyethylene were able to convert 50% of the plastic into gas; and the ones that consumed the polystyrene were able to convert 45%.
Not only do worms have the potential to be instrumental in the plastic pollution crisis, they have also been seen as a tool in fighting the global food crisis. The French agricultural scientist, Antoine Hubert, has been farming mealworms and turning them into “high-grade protein” to feed the animals and fish that humans will later eat. The mealworm-based animal feed is “super–high protein,” according to Hubert, and healthy for the animals that consume it. It can also have positive effects on the environment, as more conventional animal-feeding, like crops, emit about 25% of total carbon dioxide emissions.