Scientists Discover Worm that Eats Styrofoam to Save Plastic Crisis
By: Peter Xiao
In mid-June, scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia identified a “superworm” as the larvae of the darkling beetle, zophobas morio, that can consume and live on Styrofoam. The organism and its enzymes could be used to solve the growing plastic crisis.
The plastic crisis the world is facing will eventually cause irreversible damage to animal species and our bodies as time goes on. Less than 10% of used plastic is recycled, and every year, 33 million tons of plastic gets thrown away, with more than 14 million tons ending up in water. This plastic ends up in landfills to decompose, Styrofoam included. Styrofoam accounts for as much as 30% of landfill space worldwide and can take up to 500 years in order to break down and decompose.
The superworm was discovered during the rush to get research on organisms that can consume plastic materials. Christian Rinke, the co-author of the study that found the superworm, is working with his team to find a way to transform the enzyme discovered by scientists in the University of Austin into a product that could be used to digest Styrofoam. If the studies bring success, a liquid solution could be made using the Styrofoam-eating enzyme and would allow Styrofoam to simply be grinded and put in the solution to dispose of it.
Mr. Rinke commented on the plastic crisis and his confidence in the study saying, “You cannot really escape plastic anymore — plastic waste is everywhere. This is definitely a new, arguably, better, environmentally friendly way to break [it] down.” He estimates that a solution that can be used industrially could be developed within five to ten years.
However, finding a way to be able to use the enzyme industrially proves to be difficult. The conditions that the enzymes would have to work in are harsh, with hot environments and organic solvents making it hard for the enzyme to process the Styrofoam. In addition, using the worms instead of the enzymes carries its own difficulties, as having the worms requires that the trash be separated from the Styrofoam to allow the worms to eat it, which would be costly and time-consuming.
Andrew Ellington a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas in Austin commented on the difficulty, saying, “When you find something on a beach or you find something in a worm gut, that’s great, but all the enzymes in that thing work pretty much under the conditions where you found it, and those may not be industrial conditions.” He is not alone in having skepticism, as some researchers worry about how the process the enzyme goes through to digest the Styrofoam may produce new waste that could hurt the microorganisms currently used in landfills.
Despite the troubles, the search to find an organism that can get rid of plastic continues, and scientists have found other organisms as well. Scientists from the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University in Tokyo, Japan found the bacteria species Ideonella sakainesis that uses two enzymes to break down PET (Polyethylene terephthalate, a petroleum-based material commonly used in plastic bottles and food containers).
Shinji Tutoru, a journalist that has been writing for The PreScouter Journal since 2012, wrote in one of his articles about the discovery adding that, “This research needs more studying to determine if the bacteria can totally eradicate the plastics out of the ocean. It is still debatable whether it’s more beneficial to have these bacteria degrading plastics naturally or having the plastic bottles in a recycling bin so that they can be melted in order to produce new ones.” For now, it seems like microorganisms cannot be used to solve the plastic crisis until more research is conducted.
Jeremy O’Brien, the director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, an organization focused on advancing solid waste management, suggested a more cost-effective solution than using superworms and enzymes. His idea involves compressing Styrofoam in landfills into materials that can be turned into new plastic. He comments on how his solution is more desirable and cost-effective, and says, “That’s a lot simpler solution.”