If you stop and take a look around right this second, you’ll probably see something made of plastic. Whether it’s a soda bottle, a grocery bag, or even a Styrofoam to-go box, you’re likely to find some kind of plastic that will probably get thrown in the trash. Humans produce 300 million tons of plastic every single year.
According to National Geographic, 55% of that plastic will ultimately end up buried in a landfill. Another chunk will likely become litter either on land or in the ocean. This is a frightening problem when you realize that some plastic can take up to 400 years to degrade. But one observant scientist may finally have found a way to combat this growing mountain of plastic waste.
Federica Bertochini is part of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and an amateur beekeeper. On one ordinary day, she was busy evicting pests from the honeycombs in her bee hives. She was collecting one particular pest, known as the wax worm, in an old plastic shopping bag. But by the time she had finished cleaning out the honeycomb, she looked down to find that the bag had somehow become littered with holes. “I went back to the room where I had left the worms, and I found that they were everywhere. The bag was full of holes.”
Wax worms are the larvae of a common insect called the greater wax moth. The moth lays the larvae eggs inside the honeycomb of a bee hive. Once the larvae hatch, they begin to consume the beeswax as they begin to mature. They range in size from 13 to 16 millimeters and have a life cycle that lasts between six and seven weeks.
Bertocchini was intrigued, so she decided to conduct an experiment to see whether or not the larvae were actually able to effectively consume and break down plastic masses. With the help of some colleagues at the University of Cambridge, she set out to expose 100 worms to a regular grocery bag to see how much the worms could consume. After 12 hours, the tiny worms had consumed almost 2% of the plastic bag’s mass.
The wax worm isn’t the only organism helping to eat away at our plastic problem. Scientists are also studying how meal worms have microbes in their guts that can break down Styrofoam. It has even been discovered that a fungus in the rainforest of Ecuador can live off of plastic. Though more research is needed, the wax worm’s ability to chow down on plastic waste is just another exciting discovery in the search for innovative ways to reduce our plastic footprint.