In 1941 scientists for the Dow Chemical Company developed an extruded foam product that resists moisture, is lightweight and buoyant and has tremendous insulating properties. Amazing stuff. So amazing that it became essential in the manufacture of life rafts and vests, building materials, insulation, road and structure building and floral arrangements, to name just a few of it’s many uses. This magic substance is polystyrene foam, developed by Dow as Styrofoam.
It seemed like the perfect answer to so many problems. Almost too good to be true, and it was. Along with the uses found for polystyrene foam comes many environmental issues. Hydrofluorocarbons are used in its manufacture which has been shown to increase the potential of global warming, or more politically correct, climate change.
If that weren’t enough, you can’t get rid of the stuff. Seriously, it will last indefinitely. Long after the meal has been eaten and the cooler has served it’s usefulness, the packaging sits in a landfill, perhaps for centuries, still holding a semblance of its original shape. It cannot be recycled, will not degrade. Which has caused some large cities to ban its use in the food industry. Landfills are clogged with non-biodegradable waste, which makes the magic substance something of a curse.
From a Pest Comes Hope?
But there seems to be hope. Researchers have found a mealworm who loves to eat plastic and, wait for it……polystyrene foam. Finally, something that can take on the indestructible substance!
Mealworms are the larvae for of the darkling beetle, the most common member of the beetle family. Apparently, mealworm larvae are commonly sold in pet stores as food for other animals such as birds, lizards and snakes. But the adult beetles are sometimes kept as pets, which seems odd to the portion of population that thinks pets should have at least some fur to stroke, but then, to each his own.
But this mealworm and its appetite may be the salvation of landfills every where. Apparently the mealworm’s gut contains microorganisms that are able to breakdown and digest plastic and foam.
And the really good news is, they are not alone. It turns out that waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths have been found to eat and digest plastic garbage bags, another bane of landfills everywhere.
Bring on the Mealworms!
This new discovery has given scientists hope that perhaps they will be able to develop substances that not only destroy polystyrene, but also other kinds of plastics that are seemingly indestructible.
The US produces around 33 million tons of plastic every year. While some is recycled, like the reusable grocery bag made from plastic water bottles that I purchased recently, less than 10 percent is actually reused, the rest ends up clogging landfills.
How ironic if the answer to the growing landfill issues lies with formerly detested and maligned mealworm. If so, bring it on, much better to be overrun with beetles than drowning in a sea of packing peanuts!