The Very Hungry Caterpillar That Can Eat Plastic Bags!

Up until now the waxworm was best known to fishers as a type of bait, but a new discovery from a Spanish biologist Federica Bertocchini shows that these unsuspecting invertebrates can ingest plastic! The report published in the journal Current Biology provides a potential solution to the trillions of plastic bags used around the world every year. 

To be more specific, the Galleria mellonella moth larvae can consume polyethelene plastic, which is the specific plastic used to make plastic bags with. What’s so funny about this discovery, is that it was done completely unintentionally! You see, as good as waxworms are for fish bait, they are equally as awful for bee hives. Waxworms are known for consuming beeswax and can destroy entire hives! So while tending to her bee hives, Federica placed some of the parasitic wax worms in a plastic bag, and when she went to pick it up, realized that it was riddled with holes. 

It turns out that wax and polyethelene are chemically quite similar which allows these incredible invertebrates to consume both compounds. This discovery has quite a few people excited as the world is literally drowning in discarded plastic! It is estimated that the average person uses 230 plastic bags each year and that 80 million tons of polyethelene is produced each year. 

Federica and her research partners tested the discovery by feeding 100 waxworms with plastic bags. After 12 hours, the worms reduced the bag by 92mg, which is equivalent to one sixth the weight of a plastic shopping bag. While the mechanism behind the plastic eating is still unknown, Federica hopes to implement her findings into a viable way to remove plastic which would help stop the world’s pollution problems. 

Some scientists have already come out to argue the claims made by these researchers. Marine biologist, Tracy Mincer claims that time and resources can be better spent on decreasing plastic usage and better recycling. She claims that polyethelene can instead be upcycled and bought for up to $500 per ton. She said, “In my opinion, although this is an amazing natural history story and wonderful academic exercise, it is not a solution for disposing of polyethylene, as this is throwing away money.”

Do you think that hungry waxworms can clean up our planet or should we be putting our resources elsewhere?