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Common Worms Could Solve our Global Plastic Crisis

posted: 09/30/15
by: Danny Clemens
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Mealworms can safely and effectively biodegrade certain types of plastic waste, according to groundbreaking new research from Stanford University and China's Beihang University.

In two newly released companion studies, researchers reveal that microorganisms living in the mealworm's gut effectively break down styrofoam and plastic into "biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings."

In fact, worms that dined regularly on plastic appeared to be as healthy as their non-plastic-eating companions, and researchers think that the waste they produce could be safely repurposed in agriculture.

Plastic floating in the ocean
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Plastic waste floats in the Pacific Ocean.
Steven Guerrisi via Flickr

"There's a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places," Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, says in a news release. "Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock."

Further research is needed before the worms can be widely deployed to munch the world's growing supply of plastic waste. The studies released today focused solely on Styrofoam and polystyrene, a type of plastic widely used in packaging, appliances and electronics -- future investigations will look into whether or not the worms can biodegrade polypropylene (used in textiles), bioplastics and microbeads.

Plastic waste takes notoriously long to biodegrade -- a single water bottle is estimated to take 450 years to break down in a landfill. Due to poor waste management, plastic waste often ends up in the environment: recent unrelated research has revealed that 90% of all seabirds and up to 25% of fish sold in markets have plastic waste in their stomach.

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