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Could This Tiny Insect Help Solve the World’s Plastic Bag Problem?

Wax worm, caterpillar found to eat plastic bags

What is 1-inch-long (3 centimeters), typically used for fishing bait, known for damaging beehives, and can break down plastic bags? According to a new study, the answer is a caterpillar.

The wax worm, the caterpillar larvae of the common insect called Galleria mellonella, or greater wax moth, was recently observed by research scientists to be munching on polyethylene, the plastic used to make shopping bags and food packaging, and to be quickly biodegrading it.

Scientist Federica Bertocchini at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), who is also an amateur beekeeper, made this discovery by chance after noticing that her honeycomb panels were covered with wax worms that were feeding on leftover honey and wax from the bees.

“I removed the worms and put them in a plastic bag while I cleaned the panels. After finishing, I went back to the room where I had left the worms and I found that they were everywhere. They had escaped from the bag even though it had been closed and when I checked, I saw that the bag was full of holes. There was only one explanation: the worms had made the holes and had escaped. This project began there and then,” Bertocchini said in a statement.

Video of wax worms eating polyethylene. Credit: César Hernández/Ainhoa Goñi

Plastic Bag Problem

Every year, an estimated 80 million tons of polyethylene is produced around the globe, according to the press release. It’s infamous for being difficult to degrade and can take anywhere from 100 to 400 years to decompose completely. And if the average person is using more than 230 plastic bags annually, you can see where the problem lies.

While Bertocchini’s discovery is far from a solution to the plastic bag problem, she told The Atlantic that she hopes to find the enzyme the worms use to degrade the plastic: “Maybe we can find the molecule and produce it at high-scale rather than using a million worms in a plastic bag.”

So, for now, it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t rely on these plastic-loving worms just yet. Instead, stick to your reusable bag routine and ditch plastic bags altogether.


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