Scientists have recently announced that the global pollution crisis of plastic bags could be resolved by the incredible discovery of a waxworm that can eat its way through plastic material at impressively high speeds.
Approximately a trillion plastic bags are used by people around the world every year and the majority end up in landfills or in the ocean. Researchers have reported that the discovery of this plastic eating waxworm could quickly become a solution for the breakdown of plastic and is ‘extremely exciting’ because it is environmentally-friendly.
The waxworm has been found to quickly eat its way through polyethylene which is known to be extremely hard to break down. This tiny caterpillar has proved to feast on the plastic 1,400 times quicker than any other organism tested so far. The waxworms are normally found in bee hives and are easily harvested as bait for fishing. Scientists who have been involved in researching the worms have discovered that in the same way that they consume the wax found in bee hives, they can break down the plastic’s chemical bonds. This is possible because of the powerful enzymes in its gut or saliva which attack the wax and the plastic.
The waxworm’s appetite for plastic was discovered by accident, when an amateur beekeeper and biologist placed the worms in a temporary plastic shopping bag when she was cleaning out her bee hives. The bag became perforated with holes and it was quickly evident that the parasites were eating the plastic. Researchers have since discovered that it is not the chewing mechanisms of the worms that break down the plastic, but the enzymes within them. This was reported after the researchers crushed up the worms and spread them on polyethylene bags to encounter the same results.
Paolo Bombelli who has been involved in the research from Cambridge University has said; “It’s extremely, extremely exciting because breaking down plastic has proved so challenging. If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable”.
Paolo reported that the enzymes could be used to mass biodegrade huge quantities of plastic at recycling plants and that the enzymes could also be sprayed across landfill sites. The waxworm enzymes could also be infused into oceanic plants to help degrade plastic that already exists in the environment. The tests on the worms in Cambridge included placing 100 waxworms on a supermarket plastic bag, becoming riddled with holes within 40 minutes. It showed that 92mg of plastic had been eaten over a period of just 12 hours. Trials that had been carried out previously using bacteria showed only 0.13mg of plastic was broken down by the microbes in 24 hours.
Spectroscopic analysis has been used by researcher from Cambridge and their colleagues from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), to show the evidence of chemical bonds that were being broken down in the plastic when the waxworms were exposed. It showed that the worms changed the polyethylene bag into ethylene glycol which is an ‘un-bonded’ substance. A study was published in the Current Biology journal stating that the beeswax found in hives is like various kinds of chemical bonds, composed of a diverse range of compounds including oils, hormones and fats.
The scientist who directed the research at CSIC, Dr Bertocchini said; “We are planning to implement this finding into a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers, and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation.”
A campaign has been implemented adding an increasing pressure to British supermarkets to reduce the amount of plastic generated, with a call to initiate plastic-free aisles. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has urged on the campaign, predicting that based on weight there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
The researcher from Cambridge University Dr Bombelli has said that any resourcefulness to biodegrade plastic must be carried out alongside efforts to stop the need for plastics in the first place. Since the charge of 5p per bag was initiated by shops in October 2015, there has been an 80% reduction in use. The UK government is additionally considering adding a surcharge of 20p per plastic bottle bought, which can be refunded when buyers recycle.