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The Very Hungry Caterpillars That Could Save Us from Drowning in Plastic

Photo: Federica Bertocchini / Paolo Bombelli / Chris Howe

Science

The Very Hungry Caterpillars That Could Save Us from Drowning in Plastic

When used responsibly and repeatedly, plastic can be a good thing for our environment.

Your Tupperware will last a lifetime while cardboard and paper food packaging has to be recycled, at best.

The problems come when plastic is thoughtlessly discarded.

Like, for example, with the trillions of plastic bags that go to landfill every year.

If only there was a way to naturally break them all down, or some animal that could just munch through it all.

Well, say hello to the wax worm; a type of caterpillar that’s recently been found to eat plastic.

It’s a discovery that was made accidentally, by Spanish researcher Federica Bertocchini.

The wax worms like to eat beeswax, and part-time beekeeper Bertocchini was removing some from her hives.

She left a bunch of them in a plastic bag and found that, on her return, they’d eaten their way out.

This gave Bertocchini an idea.

If the worms were digesting the bag’s plastic and not just chewing through it, we may have found a new ally in the fight against plastic waste.

Her hopes were proved correct when she mashed up the worms (RIP) and spread the paste onto a plastic film, which began to degrade.

Further research with a team from the University of Cambridge confirmed her findings.

Bertocchini suspects that structural similarities between the worms’ usual wax diet and the plastic means their digestive system can handle the latter as well as the former.

There is hope the discovery can be put to use in the real world, although some scientists fear it may create new problems.

Ramani Narayan, a researcher from Michigan State University, told The Atlantic that using wax worms to recycle on a large scale could create small fragments that “pick up toxins like a sponge, transport these toxins up the food chain, and can cause harm to the environment and human health.”

Bertocchini, however, says using the worms themselves is not the goal.

Finding and isolating the enzyme in their digestive systems that breaks down the plastic may mean that alone can be used as a treatment in landfill.

So the wonderful wax worms can give us the solution and be free to turn into moths while we set about using it.

via The Verge

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