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Mealworms Could Solve World's Plastic Problem

Meal worms munch on Styrofoam in a display at the Bohart Museum of Entomology.

 

The solution to the world’s growing plastic problem could be mealworms, according to a recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Co-authors Professor Jun Yang and his doctorate student Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu have discovered that mealworms can chew and digest Styrofoam.

A new exhibit at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis is testing the science. 

Lynn Kimsey, the museums's director, pulls back the lid of a glass display case to reveal two older Styrofoam bike helmets.

You can barely hear the sound of chewing.

“It’s all Styrofoam, there’s nothing else in here. We put meal worms from the pet store in here. And, that’s all they’re eating is Styrofoam!" exclaims Kimsey. 

Mealworms usually eat decaying wood, or rotting leaves. So, Kimsey is dumbfounded by their Styrofoam diet.

“It’s made out of oil products. We don’t know how they do this!”

She’s excited about where the science might lead.

“They must have some amazing enzymes in their guts, or bacteria maybe, which would have huge industrial applications.”

In other words, meal worms might be able to break down Styrofoam packing material, or even say Styrofoam car bumpers.

The original study that inspired the Bohart exhibit showed that mealworms break down Styrofoam into carbon dioxide and recyclable organic waste.

“It's almost finding the holy grail for recycling!” exclaims Kimsey.

If you want to see the mealworms in action at The Bohart Museum of Entomology there is an open house on Saturday from 1-4 p.m. in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane on the UC Davis campus.