Is there a Natural Solution to Reducing Plastic Waste?
When you think about it plastic is an incredible invention. It's light and easy to ship. It can be made into many shapes and forms -- from bottles, to bags, packaging, toys, in buildings and construction, textiles, electronics and more. It doesn't break or shatter like glass. It's an innovative material.
But as we all know, it has its dark side. Plastic does not readily break down. It litters landfills and oceans. It pollutes as nano-plastics. It harms animals and the earth in many ways. Its benefits come with a hefty price.
And while we must continue to reduce, recycle, and reuse, there is a new ally in the war against plastic waste and it comes in the form of an unlikely hero -- a worm.
The discovery, like many, was made by accident. Molecular biologist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was tending to her hive when she discovered something gross -- wax worms (Galleria mellonella).
These worms give rise to moths and interestingly are used as a food source for pet reptiles, amphibians, and even some pet birds. To bee keepers however, they are pests.
Wax-worms as their name suggests consume beeswax and even honey, pollen, and larvae. They arise from moths who are able to sneak into beehives and lay eggs. In strong hives the bees take care of these intruders, but in weak hives the wax worms sometimes win out, but I digress.
After finding her hive was plagued by wax worms removed them to a plastic bag. What surprised her was that they when she returned to the bag it was full of holes and escaped worms. And she noted the escape was not only chewing, but a chemical breakdown.
She and a team of scientists at the Margarita Salas Center for Biological Research decided to study these worms and discovered something to their knowledge has never been observed in animals before.
These worms produce enzymes in their saliva that are able to break down polyethylene plastic. Polyethylene is a plastic found in plastic bags and other types of packaging.
This finding could lead to innovations in the breakdown of plastic waste. Wax worms are able to degrade plastic quickly without the need for extreme temperature.
The findings could be applied to plastic waste management plants or the production of at home kits that allow consumers to recycle their own plastic waste.
More research is needed to develop strategies to use these findings to combat plastic waste but they are encouraging.
These little worms are unlikely reminders that we all need to find ways to live together in harmony with nature, ourselves, and consider the impact and sustainability of our innovations.
What are your thoughts?
Sanluis-Verdes, A., Colomer-Vidal, P., Rodriguez-Ventura, F. et al. Wax worm saliva and the enzymes therein are the key to polyethylene degradation by Galleria mellonella. Nat Commun13, 5568 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-33127-w
Smithsonian Magazine Website, Wax Worm Saliva Is the Unlikely Hero of Fighting Plastic Waste, Accessed from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/wax-worm-saliva-is-the-unlikely-hero-of-fighting-plastic-waste-180980908/