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Clean-up Bugs to Solve Garbage Crisis

By: Eric Zeng

In the wild, you might look at worms with disgust, but in the world’s garbage crisis, they may be our best friend. The larva of a darkling beetle zophobas morio, also called “superworms”, is a prospective helper. They have recently been found to be able to consume Styrofoam, a common plastic waste.

Styrofoam takes up a large portion of the space in landfills– as much as 30%. Fourteen million tons of it end up in the oceans every year. Styrofoam has a high density and takes up lots of space, making it hard to store. Additionally, the plastic may take up to 500 years to decompose, all the while releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

So, if Styrofoam is this troublesome, why don’t we already have huge farms of these superworms? The reason is, there are still many issues with this approach industrially. In fact, superworms aren’t the first organisms discovered to be able to dispose of garbage or other plastics. In 2015, researchers found that mealworms were also able to digest Styrofoam, and in 2016, a bacteria was found to be able to eat plastic bottles. All of these organisms have yet to be used industrially.

First, for superworms, creating farms is very costly, and there may be better solutions using their enzymes instead of the worms themselves. Even then, you would still have to separate styrofoam from other trash, which is also very costly. After separating, there would have to be suitable conditions for the enzymes, which may be similar to the insides of the superworm.

In the end, this may not be the easiest solution. Another more cost-efficient solution may be to condense the Styrofoam found in landfills and recycle them into new usable plastics. Regardless, this biological approach to solving the garbage crisis is still being researched, and in coming years, may bring forth a liquid solution or composting kit able to successfully decompose Styrofoam.

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