Scientists think they have discovered a way that humans may be able to begin to tackle plastic waste on a mass scale, after finding a worm that is able to eat through polyethylene.
Plastic waste is one of the biggest environmental problems facing the planet in 2017 as ever-growing landfill sites are filled with materials that will not organically biodegrade.
According to Greenpeace, Coca Cola bottles alone produce 100 billion pieces of waste every single year, and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Not only does this mean we are running out of land to put the rubbish on, but there have also been studies that have linked landfill sites to health problems and disease in humans – Italian researchers found that living near one increased a person’s risk of dying from lung cancer due to exposure to harmful gasses produced by the rotting mounds.
So far attempts to reduce plastic bag usage, such as the five pence charge in the UK, which resulted in six billion fewer bags being used, and other methods of breaking down the plastic have only made a small dent in the problem.
But the new experiments with wax worms, carried out by The University of Cambridge and Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Spain, have found that the larvae can consume as much as 92mg of plastic every 12 hours.
The team first made the discovery in an unrelated trial, when they were removing wax worms from beehives, where they act as a plague of parasites.
During this process, the team was temporarily storing the larvae, which are the precursor to the greater wax moth, in plastic bags, when they noticed they were quickly riddled with holes.
Subsequently they conducted a separate timed trial and concluded that the worms, bred commercially for fishing bait, were able to eat through plastic at a rate almost ten times that of other bacteria previously tested.
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Lead author Paolo Bombelli said: “This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.
“The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible.”
This type of polyethylene plastic is primarily used in packaging and is used throughout Europe in approximately 40% of instances where plastic is used.
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