The Solution to the Worlds Waste Problem- Mealworms?!

I’m sure that many- if not all- of the people that read this blog would, like me, firmly believe that pollution is an incredibly serious issue which has been dangerously ignored and cast aside by previous generations. This seems to me to be especially true of physical pollution from litter (especially non-biodegradable plastics) – an area of the issue that seems to have been further ignored in favour of dramatic pictures and headlines regarding global warming, and the plight of the (admittedly much more photogenic) polar bears. This makes it all the more heartening to read that, at long last, there is a potentially promising solution to the massive deficit of plastic pollution that has been dumped in landfill sites all over the world- and it comes in pretty much the most unlikely form possible.

The research in question has been undertaken by scientists at Stanford University in the U.S., in collaboration with researchers in China, and has discovered that the unassuming mealworm (the larvae of the darkling beetle) is capable of thriving for at least a month on a diet of pure polystyrene1. 100 mealworms have been proven to dine on between 34 and 39 milligrams of polystyrene a day under lab conditions, to produce just CO2 and a small amount of tiny, biodegradable droppings (a process neatly summed up in an “infographic” created by the research team)1.Mealworms infographic

Although this is a tiny amount, it is undeniably excellent news- especially considering at present no polystyrene has been in existence long enough to have decomposed naturally2. This breaking down of the polystyrene is possible due to microbial action in the gut of the mealworms (as demonstrated by the fact that the meal worms were unable to digest the polystyrene after being fed a diet containing antibiotics), most likely the YT2 strain of Exiguobacterium– which has since been shown to form “noticeable pits and cavities”3 when left on a piece of polystyrene.

As the research supervisor, Craig Criddle, stated- “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.” In my view, this comfortably sits alongside Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and the discovery of water on Mars as one of the most shockingly great news stories of 2015- but if you feel differently, please feel free to comment (Harriet)!










  1. Nice post Edd. I agree that we should be doing something about all of the waste we are producing, but is turning it into CO2 quickly better than leaving it to decompose naturally? If an army of mealworms broke down a large amount of polystyrene, you will get a large amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, causing acid rain and contributing to global warming, whereas over a long period of time, small amounts of CO2 that are released into the atmosphere can be used by plants, taking it back out of the atmosphere. This solution is a subjective lesser of two evils, and where you or I might think that polystyrene shouldn’t be neglected, others might think that global warming is a bigger issue.

  2. An excellent thought Kevin, though due to the sheer awesomenes of the mealworm solution, it is sadly invalid! Although converting 47.7% of the styrfoam to CO2 seems like a lot, it is actually roughly the same amount as would be released from any other food source, so unless the mealworm population increased by a frankly terrifying amount the effect would be fairly negligible. As well as this, it is simply not feasible to allow the polystyrene to “decompose naturally”, as this simply does not happen- polystyrene is estimated to take around 1,000,000 years to fully degrade (though this has clearly never been proven).
    Considering around 2.5million polystyrene cups are discarded per year in America alone, it seems clear to me that some action must be taken to reduce the amount, even if only on a tiny scale so as to reduce CO2 pollution.

  3. This is really interesting, and clearly a clever option for our waste crisis. I saw a couple of months ago a video about a fungus that had been ‘trained’ (by slowing introducing more and more complex substances) to digest cigarettes – something that produces a huge amount of waste, around 4.5 billion cigarette butts a year, mainly made of cellulose acetate, which doesn’t easily biodegrade. Although most plastic is too complex to be digested by fungi (maybe these could still be digested by meal worms?), the plastic in cigarettes is fairly simple, and can be digested, as the cellulose acetate is not too different from normal cellulose, so can be easily digested. Its interesting to see how both the mealworms and the fungi, things that would easily be looked over, could actually have a huge affect on the amount of waste if there is enough investment!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this Edd! I could not help but think, whilst interesting and fascinating that there is a real logistical problem with this model. A large volume of polystyrene in a landfill site is unlikely to be a suitable environment to provide the oxygen required to support suitable decomposition. Additionally, apart from a kebab shop takeaway on a bi annual scale, I rarely use or receive polystyrene containers. Certainly not like a decade ago. The future may be in harnessing the power of the already present anaerobic bacteria already present in landfill sites. Researchers at the Georgia Tech institute of research have been researching how we can add ‘additives’ to more traditional polymer plastics that would not compromise the functionality of the plastic, but allow them to be biodegrade do by these landfill bacteria. Check it out! Although, I have to confess the mealworms and cigarette butt eating fungi are cooler examples. :). :).

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