By Shinsaku Takakawa
We all know what plastic is, but how is it made? Plastics are made from natural gases, oils, coals, minerals, and plants. Then it is refined into a certain atom such as carbon or hydrogen- depending on the type of plastic- then is made into a polymer.
Plastic materials and items are infamous for their inability to be broken down. While plastics may be made of natural materials, bacteria and other organisms cannot break down nor digest plastic. What ends up happening is that plastic breaks down until it becomes microplastics. Microplastics are small plastics less than 5 millimeters. They are created when the sun, wind, or waves degrade the plastic. Microplastics cannot be broken down any further. They end up in our bodies, in the environment, and in other organisms.
Mealworms are brown larvae that eventually grow to become darkling beetles. Mealworms can be pests or food to eat. In 2015, Stanford engineers collaborating with Chinese researchersreported that mealworms were capable of eating Styrofoam.
Microorganisms in a mealworm's stomach breaks down the polystyrene. Mealworms in the research converted the Styrofoam into carbon dioxide, and they excrete droppings. Mealworms fed Styrofoam versus mealworms that ate regular food were equally healthy. The main concern at the time of the publishing is if the mealworms were now toxic to eat.
In December of 2019, Stanford engineers published anupdate on their mealworm project. Mealworms have been discovered to be able to eat the chemical additives to the Styrofoam without it accumulating in their body. However they are unable to biodegrade a flame retardant called hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), the excrement HBCD is still a health hazard and the mealworms may not biodegrade other plastic products as efficiently or at all.
While discovering mealworms can eat plastic is inspiring, the main takeaway of these reports is that we shouldn’t be having to rely on other animals to clean up our mess. Rather, if we want to fight plastic waste and environmental pollution we must reduce single-use products and toxic additives to these products.
American Chemistry Council. How Plastics Are Made. plastics.americanchemistry.com/How-Plastics-Are-Made/.
“Eternal Plastics.” Smithsonian Science Education Center, 4 Oct. 2018, ssec.si.edu/stemvisions-blog/eternal-plastics.
Jordan, Rob. “Mealworms Provide Plastic Solution.” Stanford News, Stanford University, 19 Dec. 2019, news.stanford.edu/2019/12/19/mealworms-provide-plastic-solution/.
Jordan, Rob. “Plastic-Eating Worms May Offer Solution to Mounting Waste, Stanford Researchers Discover.” Stanford University, Stanford University, 29 Sept. 2015, news.stanford.edu/news/2015/september/worms-digest-plastics-092915.html.
This Is Plastics Team. “How Are Plastics Made?” This Is Plastics, 6 Jan. 2020, www.thisisplastics.com/plastics-101/how-are-plastics-made/.
Yurasits, Brian. “Water Plastic Bottle on Seashore Photo.” Unsplash, 1 July 2019, unsplash.com/photos/5fbJMCzqNDs.
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