Why 'Super Worms' Might Be The Answer To Our Plastic Waste

They might not sound inviting, but these creatures can be super helpful.
So long, plastic pollution.
Monty Rakusen via Getty Images/Image Source
So long, plastic pollution.

Worms are the last thing we want around us, but scientists reckon these special ‘superworms’ could actually be super helpful.

That’s because they have an amazing capacity to digest waste plastic. Think of what that could mean for our environmental woes – namely the amount of rubbish we throw out or attempt to recycle.

The larvae of the darkling beetle, dubbed superworms, are currently being used by people as food for pet reptiles.

But publishing their findings in the journal Microbial Genomics, scientists have found a new purpose for them, which could soon be available to customers.

Scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia say that the larvae, Zophobas morio, are able to break down polystyrene (found in lightweight plastics), at no harm to them.

In fact, these superworms can thrive on a diet of polystyrene. Dr Chris Rinke from the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said: “We found the superworms fed a diet of just polystyrene not only survived, but even had marginal weight gains.”

University of Queensland

So how does it work, then? Dr Rinke says the creatures work away at the polystyrene and use it for energy.

“This suggests the worms can derive energy from the polystyrene, most likely with the help of their gut microbes,” he said.

“Superworms are like mini-recycling plants, shredding the polystyrene with their mouths and then feeding it to the bacteria in their gut.

“The breakdown products from this reaction can then be used by other microbes to create high-value compounds such as bioplastics.”

To get these results, the scientists fed the worms different diets over three weeks, with some eating bran (the outer layer of cereal grain), others fasting and some on polystyrene.

But don’t fret, this advancement doesn’t mean we’re going to get our individual worm plants to break down our plastic takeaway containers and such (think how chaotic that could be).

Instead, the scientists are looking to replicate the enzyme the creatures use so it can be reproduced at scale for recycling. Then, plastic would be mechanically shredded and treated with the enzyme to help degrade it.

Co-author of the research, PhD candidate Jiarui Sun, said further testing needs to be done as they intend to grow the gut bacteria in the lab and examine its breakdown of the plastic.

Sun added: “We can then look into how we can upscale this process to a level required for an entire recycling plant. Our team is very excited to push the science to make it happen.”

If we can prevent these plastic materials going to landfills with a little help from our wormy friends, then why not?