Every year, Americans alone throw away 2.5 billion styrofoam cups, which take up 30% of American landfill space and sit for 500 years before decomposing completely. For decades, scientists have been trying to discover a solution to the buildup of this waste. Luckily, Dr. Wei-Min Wu, a researcher at Stanford University, has made a huge breakthrough in regard to this styrofoam problem, using mealworms, the larval form of the mealworm beetle, to eat the styrofoam.
Two studies co-authored by Dr. Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, showed that mealworms can eat polystyrene foam, digest it, and excrete waste that is safe to use in soil to grow food crops. Furthermore, mealworms who ate exclusively styrofoam were just as healthy as those who ate a standard diet of bran. The worms each ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of styrofoam per day (about as much as a small pill). "Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem," Wu said. His papers, published in Environmental Science and Technology, are the first to provide concrete evidence that an animal could actually digest plastic. However, dumping hundreds of millions of worms into landfills was implausible and inconvenient.
In an attempt to solve this problem, Wu and his colleagues initiated a second study. They extracted the microorganisms in the mealworms’ stomach that were digesting the styrofoam and created a film out of the microbes. They then applied the film to polystyrene foam in hopes it would digest it and die out, but unfortunately the rate at which this purified microorganism digested the plastic was significantly slower than that of the mealworm. This approach did not solve the styrofoam problem satisfactorily either.
Although science isn’t quite ready to get rid of styrofoam in landfills yet, this research proved to the world that it is possible for a microbe to digest styrofoam. More research is needed to understand exactly how these microbes work and what enzymes dissolve the plastic polymers. This would in turn help scientists create more powerful enzymes efficiently and effectively eliminate our plastic waste and ensure that it does not collect in food chains or the environment.