Plastic bags are a bane of modern life. As you read this, nearly two million of them are being used around the world right now. By the time the year is over, this number will probably reach a trillion, ending up in landfills, oceans, streams, and the digestive tracts of marine animals. Over the years, scientists have been coming up with various solutions to tackle this problem, from devising ways to give it a second lease of life to making greener and more sustainable plastics. But nature might have a simpler solution: wax worms.
For anyone who keeps bees, wax worms, which are actually the larva of the wax moth, are parasites that feed on beeswax, causing damage to beeswax combs and in some cases, destroying weakened hives entirely. By chance, this led research author and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain to stumble upon the caterpillars’ unexpected ability to chew through and actually digest plastic.
They had made short work of the plastic bag she had placed them in, which became riddled with holes after just 40 minutes (that’s about two holes per worm every hour) and turned it into a gaping mess 12 hours later. Given that plastic bags take a notoriously long time to break down, this discovery could have important implications for helping get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste in landfill sites and oceans, say the researchers.