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Scientists in China have found an easy solution to the big problem of non-biodegradable garbage by discovering a worm that can eat up and fully digest and degrade plastic waste.
Professor Yang Jun, from Beihang University, and Doctor Zhao Jiao, from the Shenzhen-based genomics organization BGI, have jointly proved that the larvae of Tenebrio molitor, also known as yellow mealworms, can safely biodegrade polystyrene, one of the most stubborn in the plastic family, into carbon dioxide and nutrition.
The mealworms in the study were put on a strict diet of Styrofoam. They converted about half of what they ate into carbon dioxide and the other half was turned into biodegraded droppings. The mealworms remained healthy on the plastic diet, and their droppings appeared to be safe for use as soil for crops.
Yang said global consumption of plastics had reached about 300 million tons in 2013 and about 400 million tons of plastic garbage is left untreated annually on the planet, posing a great threat to the environment, as well as food supply.
Yang started to study plastic degradation in 2005. His team conducted tests on many insects and worms until they discovered that the bacteria in the mealworm’s gut effectively biodegrades the plastic as part of its metabolism. The finding was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology (1).
The discovery has huge potential to help reduce the environmental impact of plastic pollutants. In nature it takes hundreds of years to biodegrade the plastic used in plastic plates, cups and containers.