Worm Eats Plastic – Is This Really Good for The Earth?
By Heather Callaghan, Editor
You may have seen passing headlines that a caterpillar was recently discovered to “eat plastic.” But take a look – there is more than meets the eye about the eco-fuzzy hooklines.
The worldwide use of one trillion plastic bags each year is obviously causing a problem – especially for ocean life. Eighty million tons (metric) of polyethylene are produced annually and can take centuries to biodegrade.
The humble wax worm – a little larvae that hatches from bee hives – was only recently discovered to ravenously chew through plastic.
Federica Bertocchini, a researcher and amateur bee keeper, removed the pesky wax worms from her hives. (Apparently, “wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic,’ and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene”, she had said.) When she temporarily placed them in a grocery bag to clean the hives, her actions led to her chance discovery.** Essentially, they ran amok all over her house…
Daily Mail reports:
Researchers from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain found that wax worms can do serious damage to a plastic bag in less than an hour.
The researchers showed that the wax worms were not only ingesting the plastic, they were also chemically transforming the polyethylene into ethylene glycol – a translucent alcohol.
The team exposed about 100 wax worms to a typical plastic bag from a UK supermarket and found that holes started to appear after just 40 minutes. 12 hours later there was a reduction in mass of 92mg, which scientists say is extremely fast compared to other recent discoveries.
How did they repay the Houdini caterpillars for their contribution to science?
By murdering them in a quick, but brutal fashion, of course.
To confirm it wasn’t just the chewing mechanism of the caterpillars degrading the plastic, the team mashed up some of the worms and smeared them on polyethylene bags, with similar results.
“The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical make-up. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms,” said Bombelli.
Is this discovery really good for the earth?
I know I might get boo-ed for splashing cold water here, but let’s think about this… We are continuing to create a product that doesn’t degrade – plastics – and then we’re turning it into another problem that doesn’t really degrade.
The byproduct of the caterpillars will become ethylene glycol which is used for anti-freeze. I ask you – at what point will the earth then be overrun by ethylene glycol, a solvent known to cause miscarriages? Are we now to breed countless numbers of these caterpillars who only get a steady diet of polyethylene – and then…what about them? (On the other hand, the worms are currently bred commercially for fish bait before they can become wax moths – they might like a change of employment.) But how do we obtain the clear alcohol they produce? Will it leak into the earth? Will wax worms become a scourge?
Bizarre imaginings aside, I’m not the only one who wonders these things.
Author William McDonough questions the global take on recycling in his book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. We recycle and repurpose, but most of the products currently designed will never actually degrade. So they can never be fully repurposed – just rearranged and all heading for the same place – the dump. Instead of the intentions of State and Corporation, he argues for a more intelligent and responsible design with the intention: how do we love all children of all species for all time?
The initial design of a product wouldn’t cause harm to begin with – and would not require harmful and complex interventions. Cradle to cradle means a product can have a true rebirth, not just be repurposed to land in the same spot – a landfill, leaking chemicals into the earth that our great-great grandchildren will curse us for.
To the researchers’ credit, they at least cautioned against throwing responsibility – and garbage – to the wind, just because of this one discovery. When they isolate the enzyme responsible for the breakdown, they hope it will be mass produced to quickly breakdown plastics. In keeping with my endless mind-chatter, will this be a chemical? Will it be an industrial chemical that needs another intervention to remove its presence from the environment? In order to stop the insanity, I come full circle with this question –
Is this discovery really good for the earth?
**A previous researcher had discovered that wax worm gut bacteria could degrade plastic, but the CSIC scientists are going to patent the discovery. Their paper will be published in the next issue of Current Biology.
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Heather Callaghan is an independent researcher, writer, speaker and food freedom activist. She is the Editor and co-founder of NaturalBlaze as well as a certified Self-Referencing IITM Practitioner.