Researchers have found that the saliva of waxworms, the caterpillar larvae of moths that feed on beeswax, can quickly break down polyethylene, a material used mainly in plastic bags, which currently leads to huge amounts of waste around the world.
If these worms could be turned into a commercially viable process, it could have a major impact on global recycling efforts, as polyethylene alone accounts for 30% of all plastic production.
Conventional polyethylene recycling methods involve mechanical breakdown, resulting in the resulting recycled material being less pure and less valuable, he writes Futurism.
Above all, enzymes present in waxworm saliva can break down long polyethylene polymer chains at room temperature, in water and at neutral pH levels – much more convenient conditions than conventional plastic recycling methods, which require high temperatures and carefully controlled acidity levels.
The researchers made the discovery by accident
“The beehives were full of wax worms, so I started cleaning them, putting the worms in a plastic bag,” Federica Bertocchini from the Center for Biological Research in Madrid and co-author of the the new study published in the journal Nature Communications.
“After a while, we noticed a lot of holes and discovered that it wasn’t just chewing, but chemical decay,” added Bertocchini.
There is growing interest in using insects or other living organisms to recycle plastic waste, from fungi to super worms that can survive by eating polystyrene.
How could worms help in the plastic waste crisis?
Unfortunately, researchers still have a long way to go before waxworm saliva becomes a viable solution to a growing plastic waste crisis.
First, synthesizing chemicals is still extremely expensive, according to experts.
“We need to do a lot of research and think about how to develop this new strategy to deal with plastic waste,” Clemente Arias, Bertocchini’s colleague and co-author, told The Guardian.