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#Unbelievable: a tiny worm may be the solution to the world's plastic problem

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 8:56 IST

Consider this: in 2013, India's plastic consumption stood at a whopping 120 lakh tonnes. It's not slowing down either. Expected to grow at an average of 10% each year, we'll hit 200 lakh tonnes by 2020.

Plastic is absolutely everywhere and new uses are constantly being found, only increasing consumption.

The laptop this piece is being typed on is largely plastic. The bottle I'm drinking from while I type is plastic, and so is the chair I'm seated on. Plastic waste worldwide is enough to circle the globe four times over. And, like most epidemics, this one is taking a huge environmental toll - both on land and, increasingly, in our waterways.

The solution? We're still looking for one, but it may just be the humble yellow mealworm.

Making a meal of it

Research has found that the worm - the larvae of the darkling beetle - is actually capable of digesting plastic. Led by scientists from Stanford and China's Beihang University, the study has found that the worms are capable of subsisting entirely on polystyrene based materials such as styrofoam.

In the study, researchers fed 100 mealworms between 35-39 milligrams of plastic daily.

What they found is hopeful. Microorganisms in the digestive tract of the worms are capable of decomposing the plastic - previously thought to be non-biodegradable. As a result of the process, the worms released carbon dioxide and excreted the vast majority of the remaining plastic as biodegraded material suited for agricultural soil.

The whole process took barely 24 hours, a huge improvement on the decades it takes for plastic to be degraded into soil in landfills. Amazingly, the worms fed on a strictly Styrofoam diet were found to be as healthy as those on a regular diet.

Not the solution, but a damn good start

The amount of plastic the worms are able to process daily is obviously underwhelming compared to the deluge of plastic waste generated every day.

But this should be seen as the start of a more feasible solution.

The study's co-author, Stanford's Wei-Min Wu, said the findings "have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem."

From here, scientists can build on the findings, examining the microorganisms to develop stronger enzymes capable of doing the job faster and more efficiently. Scientists could potentially also use this as the launchpad to develop enzymes capable of decomposing even less degradable forms of plastic such as polyproplene and bioplastics.

However, the mealworm is not a solution to the ever increasing problem of plastic in our oceans. Scientists estimate that each square-mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, with an even worse situation lurking just below the surface. At present close to 1 million sea birds and 1,00,000 marine animals die each year due to plastic.

The scientists who conducted the mealworm experiment are hopeful of finding a marine equivalent that could help the situation.

That solution may end up coming from another living avenue.

In 2011, scientists discovered microbes that subsisted on the microplastics polluting oceans that 'eats' away at plastic. In doing so it helps floating plastic sink to the bottom of the ocean, where it does considerably less damage to marine life.

Similarly, scientists at IIT Madras also identified three types of fungi capable of breaking down plastic that had been zapped with UV light. These findings serve as a reminder that the solution to the world's plastic crisis could come from the unlikeliest of places... a miniscule one.

First published: 15 November 2015, 10:09 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.