Are wax worms the best-kept plastic processing secret?
- New research has found that the Galleria mellonella larvae — also known as wax worms — have a surprising penchant for polyethylene plastic. The study was published in Current Biology and reported by ResearchGate.
- According to scientists from Cambridge University and the Spanish National Research Council, 100 worms are capable of biodegrading 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours. They convert this material into ethylene glycol, an organic compound used in polyethylene production.
- A recent editorial in The Guardian cautioned against any calls to start cultivating wax worm farms at recycling centers as they are known to have detrimental effects on bee colonies. The scientists behind this project have said they intend to study the chemistry of this process, rather than try to pursue wider use of the worms.
Like many scientific discoveries this one came about unexpectedly. A researcher from the Spanish National Research Council had collected worms in a plastic bag while cleaning out an infestation in one of her beehives and came back to find the multitude of holes they had created. Whether this is caused by unique enzymes that the worms possess or bacteria within their digestive systems remains unclear.
This is the latest in a series of intriguing findings about the potential to rethink recycling through organic chemistry. Earlier this year, a study showed potential for an additive that allowed the blending of polyethylene and polypropylene into a stronger blended polymer. Last year, IBM Research released multiple studies on topics such as converting polycarbonates into new plastic and creating less expensive biodegradable plastics from plant-based material. Numerous companies see potential in the field of biodegradable plastics and new ideas are announced on a regular basis.
At a time when the scope of marine plastic pollution is getting worse — with research showing that smell tricks seabirds into eating it and a sizable amount of material has ended up in the Arctic Ocean — any advancement gets attention. Though even the most promising and practical ideas can take years to prove out and in the meantime improving existing recovery systems is seen as the best option. Despite skepticism, the plastics industry continues to expand drop-off recycling options for polyethylene bags and has seen a resulting increase in material. Groups such as the Closed Loop Foundation fund projects to enhance recycling and other companies pursue plastic-to-oil systems, showing that no matter how exciting, no one development will be a panacea for the larger issue.
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