Plastic waste is especially rough to breakdown because of the polyethylene-based compounds used to make up a variety of plastics that is very tough. Current industrial methods to breakdown polyethylene plastics require toxic corrosive chemicals and take a long time to breakdown. Once in a landfill, polyethylene plastic shopping bags do not break down for a really long time. Some researchers estimate bags and other polyethylene packaging could take between 100 and 400 years to naturally degrade. Now, wax worms offer perhaps a natural solution to breaking down our plastic waste.
Wax worms are medium-white caterpillars with black-tipped feet and small, black or brown heads. They are the caterpillar larvae of wax moths. In the wild, they live as nest parasites in bee colonies and eat cocoons, pollen and shed skins of bees, and chew through beeswax, thus the name. They were found to be able to feed on plastic, much like other scientific discoveries in the past, by complete accident as Scientist Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain first noticed the Wax Worms’ plastic-eating skills while she was cleaning up a wax worm infestation in one of the beehives she keeps at home. She had placed them in a plastic bag when she came back and saw that they’d escaped by chewing their way out of the bag, and fast.
Scientists then conducted research to see if they were truly digesting the polyethylene and how much they could consume. Bertocchini and her colleagues found that 100 wax worms were able to chew through a polyethylene shopping bag in around 40 minutes. After 12 hours, the bag was significantly shredded. While other items such as fungi and bacteria have been found to also be able to breakdown polyethylene plastics, Wax Worms have been found to do so at a much faster rate and offers us a new environmentally-friendly option of processing our plastic waste.
By Efrain Esparza, ESG Writer