There’s been lots of news stories, posts, or other related clips on insects gathering increasing value as a protein source to eventually feed 9.6 billion people in 2050. However, my palate has yet to warm to fried scorpions as an appetizer. Therefore, when I heard about a styrofoam-plastic-eating mealworm, I thought, “this topic might be worth taking a closer look.”
Like most people, I don’t like insects or other flying pests…and they probably fall into the category of two of the last things that I want to talk or write about. Mealworms are considered pests because their larvae feed on stored grains. They are also considered a source of protein and are edible for humans as well as a source of feed for reptiles, fish, and birds.
Researchers have discovered that the mealworm can live on a diet of styrofoam and other plastic. [Ref 1] So, why is this important? This tiny worm could become a viable solution for plastic waste, that’s why.
Inside the mealworm’s gut are microorganisms that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic, according to new studies published in Environmental Science and Technology by co-authors Professor Jun Yang and his doctorate student Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu. “The findings are revolutionary. This is one of the biggest breakthroughs in environmental science in the past 10 years,” Wu said in an interview with CNN. [Ref 1]
More interesting, the problem statement for this year’s 2015/2016 Future City Competition asks middle school students to design innovative citywide solid waste management systems for their metropolis that is safe, environmentally sound, and energy efficient. This Waste Not Want Not Challenge, as it is called, asks students to consider creative and innovative solutions to today’s issues of improperly designed or operated waste management systems that have the potential to contribute to air and water pollution and can be expensive and energy intensive.
Since we are thinking in the future, I wonder how many of these students’ future cities will have plastic eating bugs as one of many solutions to managing their waste steams?
According to CNN, researchers found that mealworms transformed the plastic they ate into carbon dioxide, worm biomass and biodegradable waste. This waste seemed safe to use in soil for plants and even crops, the studies said. Being able to find insects that can safely degrade plastic is critical to potential pollution management because other insects such as cockroaches can also consume plastic, but they have not shown biodegradation, Wu said.
It is also noted that the waxworm, larvae of Indian mealmoths, can chew, eat and digest the plastic that is used to make garbage bags.
Whether you live in a developed, developing, or undeveloped country, humans create a lot of trash. Information provided by the Future City Competition states, “Each of the nearly 320 million citizens of the United States, for example, generates an average of 4.3 pounds of trash per person, per day. That makes solid waste management (the collection and processing of trash) one of the most important health, safety, and environmental services a city provides for its residents.”
Here’s perhaps one of the most important quotes from the research by Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu: “Even if mealworms can help with plastic waste management, it’s not a substitution for recycling. We need to be better at recycling. We shouldn’t waste plastic anywhere.”
We all need to do a better job of managing the three Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle) and another R (rot) as a form of waste management.
1. Styrofoam-eating mealworms might help reduce plastic waste, study finds, by Jareen Imam of CNN, Wednesday, September 30, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/30/us/styrofoam-eating-mealworms-plastic-waste/index.html?sr=tw093015mealworms630pStoryPhoto