Some cities have banned it as a single use packaging option, it’s fallen out of favor as a form of shipping cushioning, and despite its insulation properties, consumers seem to have taken to more environmentally friendly options for hot and cold edibles. Polystyrene, more commonly known as styrofoam, is gradually becoming a material from a bygone era.


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That’s mostly a result of its inability to efficiently break down or be recycled. Even if we’re using less polystyrene, it’s still an ever-present environmental issue. However, the animal kingdom may have its own unique and creepy crawly solution to this particular problem: mealworms.

Making A Meal Out Of Styrofoam
Most people are familiar with mealworms—also known as darkling beetle larvae—for their role in teaching insect life cycle lessons to young students and as feeder worms for pet lizards and other small carnivores.

According to a new Stanford University study, they could have a much bigger title as the first insect known to be able to break down petroleum-based plastic.

Researchers have found that a particular species of mealworm is capable of eating and digesting polystyrene without any harm to their system.

After placing 100 worms on blocks of polystyrene for 30 days, the researchers found that the worms had eaten into the blocks and digested the substance into a mostly organic matter that may be partially suitable for integration in soil.

A Tidy Solution To Plastic Disposal? 
It’s believed that worms are able to safely break down the styrofoam thanks to special gut bacteria or enzymes. It’s also been suggested that the worms could break down other substances that are thought to be non-biodegradable such as certain types of plastic.

Credit: Jon Glittenberg

On the surface, these findings propose a tidy solution to the problem of inorganic waste materials, however, the process isn’t very efficient. After starting with 100 mealworms and leaving them to ingesting nothing but 5.8 grams polystyrene for a month, only a quarter of the substance was consumed after a month.

A Promising Process
They study still shows considerable possibilities for disposing of styrofoam and plastic through an organic catalyst. If the specific digestive enzymes or bacteria within the mealworms could be conclusively identified and isolated, it’s possible that the process could be scaled up and serve as potential solution for polystyrene and plastic waste.

Have thoughts to share on these findings and the issue of sustainable plastic disposal? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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