Every chunk of Styrofoam that’s ever been made is still around, cluttering up landfills or floating on top of the ocean, and will always be there.
Or so says conventional wisdom, which, as usual, turns out to be wrong:
Now, for the first time, researchers have found detailed evidence that bacteria in an animal’s gut can safely biodegrade plastic and potentially help reduce the environmental impact of plastic in landfill and elsewhere. The animal in question? The humble mealworm — which turns out to be not so humble after all.
Researchers led by Stanford University in US and Beihang University in China found that the mealworm — the larval form of the darkling beetle (Tenebrio molitor) — can safely subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other kinds of polystyrene, with bacteria in the worm’s gut biodegrading the plastic as part of its digestive process. The findings are significant because it was previously thought that these substances were non-biodegradable — meaning they ended up in landfill (or worse, our oceans, where they’d accumulate for decades).
Not that they’re making a dent in the current plastics inventory yet, but this seems more than just promising:
In the study, 100 mealworms ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam each day, converting about half into carbon dioxide and the other excreting the bulk of the rest as biodegraded droppings. They remained healthy on the plastic diet, and their droppings appeared to be safe for use as soil for crops.
If you gasped at that phrase “carbon dioxide,” your very gasp emitted some of it, so shuddup.