Chinese scientists believe they may have found the solution to the problem of what to do with styrofoam waste. Because of styrofoam’s very slow biodegradation properties, it can sit in landfills for hundreds of years. The solution? Feed it to mealworms.

The scientists from Beihang University in Beijing say they have discovered that mealworms will dine on polystyrene and other similar foam products when they don’t have access to foods they usually eat. They say the worms can convert 48 percent of the styrofoam they eat into carbon dioxide.

Along with their colleagues, Lei Jiang and Jun Yang tested and found that the mealworms will eat polystyrene, although according to Yang, “They prefer not to. When we supply additional food like potatoes, mealworms will eat potatoes first.” Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle.

Scientists all over the word have been trying to find a way to halt the ever increasing tide of hard-to-break-down plastic waste, searching for invertebrates or microbes that can biodegrade hydrocarbon-based polymers into inorganic compounds like CO2 and water.

Michigan State University’s plastic biodegradation expert Ramani Narayan, says that although Chinese researchers have made an interesting discovery, it is not yet ready for practical or commercial application.  He says that even though half of the polystyrene eaten by mealworms  is excreted back into the environment in fragments, these may not be totally biodegradable and could pass toxins up the food chain.

Yang agrees with Narayan’s theory and says that engineering bacteria could boost the biodegradation process, but it may take some time. He says the next phase is to better “understand the mechanism and environmental factors responsible for degradation in the mealworms’ guts and identify the bacterial enzymes and genes involved”.

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