April 12, 2021

A new solution to the growing problem of plastic

Plastic is a huge issue for the environment and despite knowing this we still produce far too much every year. It is having a detrimental impact on people, animals, and the wider environment. The issue is that plastic is difficult to recycle. While we are producing more and more every year we are unable to properly dispose of the plastic we have. While the best solution is to reduce the amount we use, we also need to work on better ways to dispose of it, other than burying it in landfills for hundreds of years. A new solution is on the horizon.

We produce over 300 million tons of plastic every year. Over half of this is single-use plastic. Single-use is plastic that is used once and thrown away. Picture all those weak shopping bags we use, as well as the plastic that covers food and products when you purchase them. The majority of this is unnecessary and there are many better substitutes available. Eight out of the 300 million are dumped into our oceans every year. This plastic is killing the life in our oceans and making them inhospitable environments. While many people are turning away from plastic use, forecasts still say the number will increase dramatically as industrialization continues around the world.

While scientists are looking for numerous solutions in different chemical properties to try and find ways to break down these plastic, nature may be providing an answer already. Enter plastivores. We have all heard of carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores. Those who eat meat, vegetables and both. The new word plastivores is to cover those animals or organisms who eat… plastic. 50 different organisms have now been identified that can be called plastivores, meaning they are able to digest plastic (no that weird kid you went to school with who used to eat plastic figurines is not one of them).

The most well-known plastivore is the wax moth and its larvae the wax moth caterpillar. These organisms are often seen as the criminals of the insect world as they invade beehives and eat the honeycomb inside. For years people had reported seeing them eating plastic too but until 2017 no further research was conducted. 

Since 2017 a number of scientists have been studying this area and have found that the caterpillars are very good at not just eating but breaking down the plastic. Further study revealed that they were not just breaking it down to smaller bits of plastic and then pooping it out (which would be a long process to end up in roughly the same amount of plastic), they actually have bacteria in their guts that are breaking down the plastic to a chemical level. This has huge potential as a natural way to dispose of plastic bags.

There are a couple of issues with this plan at present though. 60 caterpillars were able to 30 square centimeters of plastic a week, only. While it was incredible to see that the caterpillars are able to survive on a diet of plastic alone it would still take a very high number of caterpillars to deal with the 300 million and rising tons of plastic we have to deal with every year. That may not be logistically possible.

A second problem is that while the caterpillars were not pooping plastic, what they were pooping, was toxic. Again, toxic poop is not a huge issue from 60 caterpillars but if we start to scale out this solution, it won’t work.

There are clear issues with this idea that need to be worked out. However, it is an important study as it shows that some of the problems we have created could be solved in partnership with nature.