Caterpillars: The Solution To Plastic Pollution?

According to EcoWatch, enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth 4 times. Much of that plastic is not recycled properly and ends up in landfills or in the ocean. Plastic pollution is a huge problem the Earth is facing, therefore, scientists are trying to find a way to decrease our waste. Researchers in Europe believe they may have found the answer – caterpillars.

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The New York Times reports “Scientists discovered that the wax worm, a caterpillar used for fishing bait that takes its name from its habit of feeding on beeswax, is able to break down the chemical bonds in polyethylene, a synthetic polymer and widely produced plastic used in packaging, bags and other everyday materials.” This discovery, however, was found on accident.

Federica Bertocchini, a scientist at the Spanish National research Center and an amateur beekeeper, happened upon this discovery. While maintaining her beehives, she decided to take out several of the wax worms and keep them in a plastic bag. Soon after placing the worms in the bags, she found the worms had chewed holes in them. When Bertocchini realized the potential of the worms, she turned her findings over to the science community for help.

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Through various experiments, scientists learned that the worms were in fact breaking down the plastic and not just chewing it into smaller pieces. One of Bertocchini’s peers from the University of Cambridge, Christopher J. Howe, said “We think that it’s some enzyme that’s involved. We don’t know if it’s actually produced by the worms or actually is produced by bacteria in the gut of the worms.”

Researchers believe if they are able to isolate the enzyme, then it would be possible to insert the enzyme into a bacteria, as the bacteria would be easier to cultivate than the worms. This bacteria could be the basis of a biotechnology to break down plastic, making it easier to recycle and reuse plastic.

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However, scientists believe they are still some time away from concluding their experiments. Howe believes that it could take several years before they can turn this discovery into a plastic pollution solution.