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Notoriously Durable Styrofoam Could Be Munched by Mealworms

Microbes in the beetle larvae’s guts help break down polystyrene

(AJC ajcann.wordpress.com/Flickr - CC-BY-2.0)
smithsonian.com

Even with advances in recycling technologies, most styrofoam still can’t be recycled. Once the expanded polystyrene makes its way to landfills, it will take centuries to break down. But researchers have discovered a way to deal approximately 2.3 million tons of the stuff that gets tossed each year (in the U.S. alone), with a little help from beetle larvae, reports Devin Coldewey for NBC News

Mealworms are the larvae form of the darkling beetle. In their little guts, they carry microbes that can biodegrade plastic, according to two new studies co-authored by Stanford University research engineer, Wei-Min Wu. Each worm, just a centimeter or two in length, can chow down on a few dozen milligrams of styrofoam a day, with no problems.

The worms can also handle other forms of polystyrene. "Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem," Wu says in a press release by Rob Jordan. The researcher published their findings in Environmental Science and Technology

The worms pooped out the plastics in small biodegraded fragments in about 24 hours. The release notes that the waste looks like tiny rabbit droppings, and seems to be safe to use as soil for crops. The team is monitoring the worms still for long term effects, reports Coldeway, but so far they seem healthy.

Hopefully soon, the mealworms can get cracking on some of the trash clogging the planet’s oceans and landfills.

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