OCTOBER 6, 2022
Instead of marveling at the wonders of how “plastics makes this possible,” the popular 1990s campaign has been replaced with concerns over the massive piles of plastic pollution that are found all over the world. From roadsides to waterways, plastic pollution is a serious issue due to the fact that the material takes ages to break down and contains harmful chemicals that increase toxicity levels. But now, scientists have discovered that wax worms can break down plastic at record speeds.
This is incredible news. While plastic bags and plastic containers were once touted as a solution to deforestation, introducing masses of plastic products and product packaging has led to the production of three hundred- million tons of plastic trash each year, and this has led to massive environmental consequences as well as health problems related to microplastic ingestion that is common among humans. As efforts to recycle and reduce plastic waste have become common in the United States, there is a need for more sustainable solutions, like plastic-eating worms.
It is one of the marvels of evolution. While scientists have debated over the incredibly slow process of evolution for years, the reality of nature’s secrets has been revealed by the fast-acting adjustments that animals have been able to go through in places like Chernobyl. This quick process has been discussed by many naturalists – including nature writer Richard Smyth in his book A Sweet, Wild Note – and has led scientists to view the new discovery of wax worms’ ability to break down plastic with wonder.
Currently, it is still unclear whether these worms have undergone an evolutionary change to adapt to the growing availability of plastic material in landfills and natural spaces outright or not, it is now known that their saliva is the key component of this process. This was revealed when a scientist was going through the simple act of cleaning wax worms from his beehives. He placed the worms into a plastic bag because they were plaguing his hive, but to his surprise, they ate through the material.
This led him to find that enzymes in wax worm saliva break down long chains of polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. This works at room temperature, underwater, and while maintaining neutral PH levels. Current recycling methods can only work at high temperatures with controlled acidity levels.
The wax worms offer a promising discovery that could tackle the ongoing plastic pollution problem with the help of some other known plastic-eating creatures. In 2016 a bacteria that eats plastic was discovered, and the year after that a fungus was found to break down plastic as well. While humans have sought solutions for years, nature is paving a more tangible way toward a cleaner plastic-free future.
Who knew something as small as a wax worm could be so helpful? This just goes on to prove that big things can be found in small places. Now scientists are hoping to partner up with these little guys to create new strategies to tackle the growing plastic pollution situation, and that is truly an organic endeavor.
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