With the abundance of plastic in the world today it seems we have created an insurmountable problem that will affect the environment for centuries to come. There is a pressing need to reduce the amount of plastic. Could caterpillars could provide one solution for this problem?
Caterpillars that Eat Plastic
Here are two species of caterpillar that eat plastic as part of their diet. As a natural way to eliminate this waste, they could prove to be very useful indeed.
Federica Bertocchini was working in her lab in Spain and discovered by accident that a species of caterpillars called waxworms, or Galleria Mellonella, were digesting the wax that bees had made. She thought she had disposed of the waxworms when she placed them in a plastic bag only to find that a few hours later that they had eaten holes in the bag. In a test using a mixture of polyethylene and plastic, the waxworms ate 13% of the plastic in one day. Tests revealed that the waxworms were converting the substance into ethylene glycol which is a sign that the waxworms truly were disposing the plastic.
The Plodia Interpunctella, also known as the Indian Mealmoth is also capable of consuming plastic but at a much slower rate. They contain a mixture of digestive bacteria in their guts which allows them. It’s hoped that by making industrial quantities of the bacteria then plastic could be degraded in huge amounts. Obviously there is a long way to go from conceiving an idea and then executing that idea in practice.
Are Caterpillars The Solution?
However, caution should be exercised before we get too excited and think we’ve instantaneously found the solution to plastic waste. Considering the amount of plastic waste that is produced each year compared to the consumption rate of the caterpillars means that we would need billions of them to take care of it all. One of them can only eat 2 milligrams per day and plastic waste is measured in millions of tonnes per year country. For example, the United Kingdom produced 2 million tonnes of waste last year alone. So obviously, the math looks pretty daunting at this stage.
A Worms Affect on Bees
Another consideration is that waxworms are an enemy of bees and cause considerable damage to their hives which are obviously made from wax. Bee populations are already under pressure and it might be worth considering the old saying that the path of good intentions is paved with evil. Bee farmers already lose millions of dollars due to waxworms so this is yet another problem to surmount before embarking on a massive plastic dissolving program.
Rethinking Our Options
Perhaps better solutions better exist. We could just recycle the plastic as we’re supposed to and thus cut out the problem of plastic waste altogether. Maybe a more sustainable solution would be to employ bacteria to dissolve the plastic waste. The could be created in huge fermentation vats. It is the bacteria in the gut of the caterpillar that breaks down the polyethylene substance in plastic. At this stage the discovery of the plastic eating caterpillar to that of an interesting side note rather than a game changer that it was hyped up to be.