Stanford research has found that tiny mealworms could prove helpful in providing a solution to combat plastic waste.
The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, reveals that mealworms can eat various forms of plastic, including Styrofoam with toxic chemical additives.
Stanford Woods Institute for Environment, the National Science Foundation and the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship funded the research.
It is the first of its kind to understand where chemicals in the plastic end up and to build a proof-of-concept to derive value from plastic waste.
Mealworms are used as food for animals such as chickens, snakes, fish and shrimp. Stanford researchers and collaborators at other institutions previously found that the easily cultivable mealworms can survive on all types of plastic diet.
The study reveals that microorganisms in the worms’ guts biodegrade the plastic. However, they were unsure if the plastic-eating mealworms are safe for other animals.
In the experiment, researchers found that mealworms excreted around half the polystyrene consumed as partially degraded fragments and the other half as carbon dioxide.
Furthermore, the diet consisting of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) chemical additive was found to be as healthy as a standard diet.
Researchers found that the HBCD content in the excreta of a mealworm still constitutes a hazard while other common plastic additives could pose different threats.
Stanford civil and environmental engineering PhD student Anja Malawi Brandon said: “This is definitely not what we expected to see. It’s amazing that mealworms can eat a chemical additive without it building up in their body over time.”
“It reminds us that we need to think about what we’re adding to our plastics and how we deal with it.”