Plastic-eating caterpillar offers waste solution

Caterpillar found to eat shopping bags suggesting biodegradable solution to plastic pollution

A research scientist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has discovered that a caterpillar commercially bred for fishing bait can eat plastic.

Researchers in the United Kingdom and Spain found that the larvae of the wax moth Galleria mellonella, which live on wax in bee hives, can also degrade polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic. The worms were temporarily place in a typical plastic shopping bag that became riddled with holes.

Their experiments, published today in the research journal Current Biology, suggest that about 100 wax worm caterpillars could degrade 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours. "We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms". The chemical processes of breaking down plastic and wax found in bee hives are likely similar, and researchers are now excited by the prospect of developing a biotechnological approach to the plastic waste that chokes oceans, rivers, and landfills. Given that plastic bags take a notoriously long time to break down, this discovery could have important implications for helping get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste in landfill sites and oceans, say the researchers. People around the world use around a trillion plastic bags every single year.

For reference, it could take hundreds of years for the average plastic bag to break down because it's made of polyethylene, which doesn't register as food to most microorganisms.

The scientists propose that digesting beeswax requires the worms to break down chemical bonds in a process similar to breaking down polyethylene.

The researchers believe that the caterpillar and the microbes inside it could provide a solution to minimise the problem of plastic waste.

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When she finished and returned to the worm bags, she found they had eaten holes through the bag and escaped.

"Given the fast rate of biodegradation reported here, these findings have potential for significant biotechnological applications", the authors wrote. Rather, the scientists are hoping to identify and isolate the wax worms' plastic-degrading enzymes so that they can be scaled up and used in industrial applications.

"When I went to clean them for reuse in the spring, they were infested with (wax) worms".

Startled by the caterpillar's voracious appetite, Bertocchini and a team from Cambridge University made a decision to conduct experiments to find out just how much, and how quickly, the pests could consume environmentally harmful plastic. They carried out a study and found that the waxworms are able to digest polyethylene, which makes up around 40 percent of the plastics worldwide and is most commonly used for plastic packaging, bags and bottles.

Behold the Waxworm, a caterpillar capable of eating plastic. "However", she adds, "we should not feel justified to dump polyethylene deliberately in our environment just because we now know how to bio-degrade it".