A small and parasitic invertebrate may just be the biggest secret weapon Mother Nature has in her fight against plastic pollution.
Waxworms are the plump, white larvae of waxmoths, so-named for their diet of honey bee wax (in addition to the cocoons, pollen and skin sheddings found in a honey bee colony). Because of their gastronomic proclivity, beekeepers view the worms as pests; and because of their “tender, plump [and] nutritious” nature, Petco views them as the perfect treat for captive reptiles. Yet a recent study performed by researchers from Beihang University and Stanford University has shed new light on waxworm biology, and with it, a potential key in eliminating polyethylene.
According to SPI, the plastics industry trade association, polyethylene is the largest volume plastic used in both the United States and the world. It is found in packaging films, bagging, molded housewares, toys, pipes, gasoline tanks and in a myriad of other products. And though a major convenience in everyday life, polyethylene, like all plastic types, is effectively non-biodegradable.
Enter the waxworm – and once you’re inside the waxworm, you’ll find two bacterial colonies: Enterobacter asburiae YT1 and Bacillus sp. YP1. These bacteria are what enable the waxworm to digest polyethylene packaging, as detailed in a report recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
After researchers isolated the bacteria, they set it on a 100 milligram piece of polyethylene to measure it in action. After 60 days, Enterobacter asburiae YT1 had degraded about 6 percent of the plastic and Bacillus sp. YP1 had degraded 10 percent.
These results, the authors write, “demonstrated the presence of [polyethylene]-degrading bacteria in the guts of waxworms and provided promising evidence for the biodegradation of [polyethylene] in the environment.”