Innovation and Sustainability: Writer Hannah Johnstone Reveals How Plastic-Eating Worms Could Help In Our War With Plastic
Photo by Christina
Plastic is one of the leading contributors to our planet’s deteriorating health. Each year, 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced, 40% of which is single-use. Of this plastic, only 9% is recycled, 12% is burnt and the remaining 79% ends up in landfills or the environment.
Environmentalists predict that 12 billion tonnes, the equivalent of 66 million blue whales, of plastic waste will occupy landfills or the environment by 2050.
Clearly, a solution to all this plastic waste is needed, and soon. Many countries have placed bans on certain plastic use. For example, in 2017 Kenya implemented a full ban on the production and handling of plastic bags.
Rwanda and Morocco have also applied plastic bans, meaning that anyone producing or in possession of plastic packaging will face criminal punishment. There is still, however, plastic with lifespans of up to 1000 years overflowing our landfills.
Not only does this plastic waste clog up our landfills and produce eyesores in our natural environment, but it also harms wildlife. 1 in 3 turtles will ingest plastic within their
The wax worm could be a potential light in the ever darkening cloud of plastic waste. Scientists have discovered two species of waxworm, the Galleria mellonella and Plodia interpunctella, which can digest polyethylene. Polyethylene is the most commonly used plastic, forming most of the world’s plastic bags and bottles.
Professor and beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was the first to discover the worms’ plastic-eating abilities after finding them in her backyard beehives. She placed them in a plastic bag to later find that they produced tiny holes in the plastic.
Bertocchini then, along with scientists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher J. Howe, observed that, when placed in a polyethylene shopping bag, approximately 100 Galleria mellonella waxworms consumed almost 0.1 gram of the plastic over the course of 12 hours. This information shows us that it would take 100 of these worms nearly a month to completely break down an average, 5.5 gram plastic bag.
It is believed that the worms produce an enzyme capable of breaking down the plastic into ethylene glycol - a biodegradable compound. This enzyme could be the key to breaking down some of the plastic waste polluting our planet and therefore clearing landfills.
Although these worms represent a phenomenon in natural history which forms a bridge between the natural world and man-made pollution, it is not looking like the most cost effective method of combating plastic waste. Tracy Mincer, a marine biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, claims that a better solution is simply recycling more and producing less plastic.
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