Scientists in Australia who are trying to find ways to help the environment have some positive news to report: the larvae of an insect called the darkling beetle has a taste for Styrofoam, a material that accounts for up to 30% of the waste in global landfills.
The Washington Post website reports that this discovery is one of many from researchers who are looking for ways that organisms can gobble up the world’s plastic products like Styrofoam, bottles and shopping bags — which are cheap to make, sturdy to use and are not going anywhere, to be completely realistic.
If they can figure out how to isolate the enzymes that the beetle larvae use to digest Styrofoam, then someone would have to turn them into a commercial product that could be used to get waste products to break down more quickly. Everyone agrees we’re a long way from that — at least five to 10 years.
The darkling beetle is not the only potential plastic muncher. In 2015, Stanford University researchers found that mealworms could survive on a Styrofoam diet, and in 2016 Japanese scientists found bacteria that could eat plastic bottles.
A couple of points here. First, in spite of conservation efforts and concerns about the environment, plastic products are going to remain part of our culture. That’s been settled since the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” when someone advised Dustin Hoffman’s character that plastics was the business of the future. Good call.
Given that, we have two choices. We can either continue dumping plastic products in landfills, where they take decades or even hundreds of years to decompose, with a sizable amount of the stuff polluting our streams and oceans. Or we can figure out how to speed up the process of breaking them down.
The second option sounds like a much better way to go. And we don’t want to set hordes of beetles into landfills — although a great sci-fi movie story would have beetles eat the wrong discarded chemicals, becoming gigantic and then coming after people for meals.
One of the Australian study co-authors told the Post that if scientists can come up with the right mix of digestive enzymes, landfills and other waste managers could grind them up with Styrofoam products. That would either get rid of the Styrofoam or maybe allow it to be recycled into new plastic products.
Many challenges remain. A big one is to find enzymes, which generally live in warm intestines, “that can operate in industrial conditions, which often process trash in very hot environments or through the use of organic solvents,” the Post reported.
There are surely other barriers to overcome as well. The cost of this “recycling” is one. But think of how rapidly technology, medical care and other fields have advanced. There’s no reason to think scientific ingenuity can’t figure out how to control the waste of one of the world’s most popular but slowly decaying products. It’s just a matter of time till this problem is solved.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal