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“Superworm” that eats Styrofoam Could be the Solution to the Garbage Crisis

By: Austin Deng

Scientists from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia have recently published their findings showing that darkling beetle larvae can digest polystyrene, otherwise known as Styrofoam.

Their findings showed that roughly 66% of beetle larvae given polystyrene became beetles, compared to the 10% of larvae that were forced to starve. This indicated to researchers that the superworms have enzymes in their gut that can digest Styrofoam.

These findings come amid many new studies on organisms that can consume plastic materials. Researchers from Stanford University showed in 2015 that mealworms could also survive on Styrofoam. In 2016, Japanese scientists found bacteria that ate plastic bottles. In April, researchers from the University of Texas found an enzyme that broke down polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic resin.

Next, the researchers will try to transform the enzymes that allow the superworms to digest Styrofoam into a commercial product. Wei-min Wu, a senior researcher at Stanford University, said researchers in this field will face several challenges in the years ahead. It will take time to study the gut enzymes of species such as mealworms and superworms, and when they do, it’s not guaranteed they can digest plastics at large levels at a very quick and efficient rate.

Christian Rinke, the co-author of the Brisbane study said that “We want to not have gigantic superworm farms. Rather, we want to focus on the enzyme.” He estimated that it would take somewhere between 5 to 10 years to develop the enzyme into a usable industrial solution

Andrew Ellington, a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said that finding enzymes that can operate in industrial conditions is difficult. Trash is often processed through hot environments or organic solvents that can prevent the enzymes from doing their job.

He suggested an alternative solution. “I believe that we will be able to offer up, in the not-so-distant future, worm-based composting kits so that individuals can do this themselves.”

Each year, half of all single-use plastic becomes trash. This plastic clogs up landfills and decomposes. More than 14 million tons of this trash ends up in the water every year, killing animals and degrading underwater habitats.

Styrofoam is particularly troublesome. The material takes up a lot of space, making it expensive to store at waste management facilities. Polystyrene fills landfills, where it can often take 500 years to break down and decompose. Many things that contain Styrofoam are also contaminated with food and drink, making it hard to recycle.

“You cannot really escape plastic anymore — plastic waste is everywhere,” said Christian Rinke “This is definitely a new, arguably, better, environmentally friendly way to break [it] down.”

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