SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Consider the lowly mealworm. Researchers at Stanford University have been doing just that and they’ve discovered the little larvae have a big appetite for plastic — including products that we bigger and smarter creatures haven’t figured out how to effectively recycle.

A few years ago, Stanford scientists determined that bacteria found in mealworms’ guts can biodegrade several kinds of plastic, including one that’s devilishly difficult to dispose of: Styrofoam.

Plastic-Eating Mealworms

Plastic-digesting mealworms at work on pieces of Styrofoam in China. (CCTV via YouTube)

Other insects, such as cockroaches, can consume plastic but they have not shown biodegradation, Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu told CNN in 2015.

Results of a new study are even more promising. The study finds that mealworms can consume, digest and excrete Styrofoam containing a toxic, fire-retardant chemical like hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) without concentrating it in their body tissue, allowing mealworms to be used safely as feed stock for more desirable sources of protein such as chickens, farmed fish and shrimp.

“It’s amazing that mealworms can eat a chemical additive without it building up in their body over time,” said Anja Malawi Brandon, a Ph.D candidate in engineering at Stanford, in an article published at Stanford News. “This is definitely not what we expected to see,” she added.

The United States produces about 33 million tons of plastic every year but less than 10 percent is being recycled so the mealworm could help offer a solution that augments other efforts at eliminating waste plastics.


Stanford Researchers Show Mealworms Can Safely Consume Toxic Additive-Containing Plastic

Plastic-Eating Worms May Offer Solution to Mounting Waste

Fate of HBCD in Polystyrene-Degrading Mealworms

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