Superworms Eating Styrofoam & Plastic

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Tackling the world’s plastic problem may depend on tiny superworms with an appetite for plastic and styrofoam. Here’s what you need to know.

Global Waste

Humans make a lot of waste. Scientists, engineers, and innovators across the globe are working to develop better solutions to tackle our waste. Standard waste methods used in many countries include delivering waste to landfills, incinerators, and recycling centers. Some cities have begun to implement curbside compost waste programs. 

Each year, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of waste. Worldwide, this equates to a daily generation of 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms per person. However, wealthier countries account for 34% of annual waste generation yet only make up 16% of the global population. 

As populations and waste grow alongside each other, waste management solutions are one of the top priorities for both wealthy and developing countries. 

Plastic waste

Plastic

Plastics are used in almost everything we use and buy. There are many varieties of plastic, but they are all composed of similar materials. Crude oil and synthetic polymers and colorants are used to produce plastic, ranging in size, weight, and durability. 

While plastic is a cheap and reliable product, it is currently wreaking havoc on waste management systems and the environment. The oceans and marine species are especially taking the brunt of plastic pollution. 

It is estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic material circulating in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. The Ocean Conservancy estimates that 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our oceans each year.

Plastic typically enters the environment by littering or intentionally discarding, or through the wind. Plastics are incredibly light, meaning they are able to escape recycling bins or garbage bins, garbage trucks, and landfills with ease. They are then able to reach the ocean or other water bodies.

Finding solutions to mitigate plastic pollution is what many governments, organizations, investors, and scientists are currently working on across the globe.

Each year, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of waste. Worldwide, this equates to a daily generation of 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms per person.

Styrofoam

Styrofoam is made from a compound called polystyrene — a type of plastic. However, styrofoam is much lighter than other plastics and has a foam-like texture. It’s commonly used to produce to-go cups, insulation, shipping materials, egg cartons, and other food and beverage products. 

Products made from styrofoam pose similar environmental risks compared to other plastics. They are lightweight, toxic to most wildlife, and are less often recycled when compared to other plastics, like bottles. Thus, most discarded styrofoam products are sent to landfills, where they are likely to remain for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

worm

Superworm Solution

An unlikely creature is gaining attention for its ability to consume plastic, digesting it, and turning it to energy. Researchers and the University of Queensland in Australia have discovered a species of worm that feeds on plastic. Various plastics and polystyrene (styrofoam) were given to worms over a period of weeks, with shocking observations. 

Known as the ‘superworm,’ the species is thought to be able to digest plastic compounds due to unique enzymes in their digestive system. Wanting to know more about the enzymes, researchers used a technique called metagenomics to determine which enzymes were responsible for degrading plastics. Several were found, and engineers are hopeful that these enzymes can be used on an industrial scale to break down plastic waste, a process being called enzymatic biodegradation. 

Scientists are now working on formulating enzymes that mimic those of the superworms, with the goal of delivering an economical, effective way to mitigate waste at large-scale operations, including landfills and recycling plants. If successful, this could prove to be a sustainable, low-risk way of processing plastic waste in the future.

Key Takeaways

  • Finding waste solutions is a top priority for nations across the globe. 
  • Plastic and styrofoam pollution in the environment is a risk to wildlife and human health.
  • Enzymes found in superworm digestion systems may be able to be replicated and used in large-scale operations to biodegrade plastics.

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