Plastic waste has been a hot topic for a while now. It is hard to get rid of, and it is very harmful to the environment. Plastic bags are a particular nuisance. Some cities have even tried banning their use altogether, while other decided to tax them. What is even more surprising is the fact that people have created valid replacements that never caught on. From bags made out of shrimp shells to biodegradable plastics, nothing has caught on. At least nothing that can dethrone plastic bags. Some have even tried to distill them into fuel or make nanotubes out of them.
This is where the waxworm comes in. The species is mostly known as a pest in the beekeeper community. The waxworm’s main source of food is the wax and the honey it finds in beehives. When it does not have access to these two delicacies, then plain old plastic will do just fine. Just ask amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini. One day, as she was tending to her beehives, she noticed that one was overrun by waxworms. She immediately collected the waxworms and placed them in a plastic bag so she can dispose of them when she finishes her rounds around the beehives. To her surprise, when she returned, the worms were all over the place, and the plastic bag was eaten through. This was when she decided to start an experiment to track to what extent and how efficiently worms might dispose of plastic.
One of the fascinating findings during the study was that the worms were capable of breaking down the plastic in a matter of hours. By the researcher’s estimate, it takes about a hundred waxworms to break down 96 milligrams of plastic. All of this is done over a 12-hour period. The waxworms accomplish this by turning the plastic into ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol can be found in antifreeze and polyester for example. The great thing about ethylene glycol is that it breaks down on its own in the environment after a few days, unlike plastic bags that, if left unattended, take anywhere from 100 to 400 years to break down.
Other studies proved that another kind of worm is also capable of breaking down plastic. Another species of worm, the mealworm, have shown that they can safely consume styrofoam. The scientists are now trying to recreate the way in which these worms accomplish this trick of making plastic bags disappear.
One of the ideas is that the waxworms can do this because the plastic they consume is chemically almost identical to the regular food that they consume, beeswax. Something that is immediately apparent is the fact that the waxworms did not display any side-effects after consuming the plastic. Additional research needs to be performed to verify whether the waxworms can indeed consume the plastic without any issues.
During the initial study, the waxworms appeared healthy and formed their cocoons in the usual way.
Future plans for the study are to try and recreate the molecule or molecules responsible for the breakdown of the plastic. After that, the plan is to synthesize those molecules on a larger scale. The idea is that the caterpillars may help them find a substance that can resolve our problem with plastic forever.
Alexandra grew up dreaming of being a great science explorer. She always wanted to travel the world and explore some of the greatest science mysteries of the times. After high school, she studied chemistry in college and spent most of her summers working on research projects alongside her professors. It was there that Alexandra got clarity about what she wanted to do in the future. She now works full time in science research at a teaching university and is planning to go to medical school in a few years. She likes to stay up-to-date with the latest discoveries in science and share her love for science through her writing.