A Waxworm could be the solution to the global plastic bag pollution crisis. scientists have announced the creatures is capable of eating through the material at “uniquely high speeds”.
Researchers have described the tiny caterpillar’s ability to break down even the toughest plastics as “extremely exciting” and said the discovery could be engineered into an environmentally-friendly solution on an industrial scale.
Around a trillion plastic bags are used around the world each year, of which a huge number find their way into the oceans or are discarded into landfill.
Commonly found living in bee hives, or harvested as fishing bait, the waxworm proved it could eat its way through polyethylene, which is notoriously hard to break down, more than 1,400 times faster than other organisms.
Scientists believe the creature has potent enzymes in its saliva or gut which attack plastic’s chemical bonds, in the same way they digest the complex wax found in hives.
Similar to many discoveries the waxworm’s potential was discovered by accident. Biologist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini noticed caterpillars chewing holes through the wax in some of her hives and lapping up the honey. To identify them, she took some home in a plastic shopping bag. But when, a few hours later, she got around to looking at her captives she found the bag was full of holes and the caterpillars were roaming around her house.
Whether releasing wax moths on the world’s surplus plastic really is sensible is not yet clear. For one thing, it has not been established whether the caterpillars gain nutritional value from the plastics they eat, as well as being able to digest them. If they do not, their lives as garbage-disposal operatives are likely to be short—and, even if they do, they will need other nutrients to thrive and grow. Another question is the composition of their faeces. If these turn out to be toxic, then there will be little point in pursuing the matter. Regardless of this, though, the discovery that wax-moth larvae can eat plastic is intriguing. Even if the moths themselves are not the answer to the problem of plastic waste, some other animal out there might be.