A hobby beekeeper in Spain mistakenly stumbled upon a big win for environmentalists. Scientists are now eagerly studying her find and its wonderful applications for saving the environment.
In Spain, a hobby beekeeper was tending to her beehives when she saw some loitering caterpillars that were eating the beeswax, some cocoons, and shed bee skins. You may be more familiar with their common name – waxworms – which are known to infest beehives. These particular ones are Galleria mellonella, the greater wax moth.
She promptly extracted the pests into plastic bags. But to her surprise the waxworms rapidly made little holes in the plastic. Fortunately, the hobbyist is an astute researcher at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria who immediately recognized the remarkable implications that these caterpillars could have for the environment.
She and other researchers found that these waxworms could break down plastic faster than other cutting-edge artificial and natural methods. They wanted to make sure the waxworms were really breaking down the plastic, rather than just rapidly chewing holes into it. To do this, and in the name of science, they then smashed the waxworms up to expose the digestive enzymes in their guts. When they applied the smashed waxworm juice to plastic, they recorded some measurements that confirmed the waxworms’ enzymes were breaking down the plastic.
The researchers were thrilled because these findings mean that recycling plants and waste management facilities can use waxworms to breakdown plastics naturally without too much additional cost. They’re also exploring the possibility of synthetically producing the waxworms’ enzymes for mass production, which would be more costly and less environmentally friendly, but would also be exponentially more efficient at breaking down plastics.
The Current Plastic Waste Problem
Why are these findings newsworthy? Because the waxworms’ enzymes have been found to breakdown polyethylene, which make up a minimum of about 40 percent of plastic packaging. Before these findings, polyethylene was considered not biodegradable – which means it doesn’t naturally breakdown by itself or by nature.
Data shows that plastic production is increasing exponentially as more products are becoming industrialized and technology is advancing. But only 26 percent of these plastics are recycled, while 38 percent end up in landfills, and the rest are combusted (which causes air pollution).
The landfills are already becoming backed up with non-biodegradable trash, which may cause plastic waste to make their way into animal habitats. This leads to scenes like fish and dolphins getting their necks stuck around plastic waste and other heartbreaking scenarios.
These waxworms and their enzymes can realistically rescue the environment from plastic buildup. If they can be used to break down plastics, landfills will have more space and there will be less air pollution from combusting plastics.
What’s the best part? When they break down plastics, they make ethylene glycol, which is antifreeze! That means using these waxworms and their enzymes to treat plastic waste will actually recycle the plastic into antifreeze. It’s a win-win for the environment and for companies wanting to boost their revenue by treating their plastic wastes with these waxworms to make antifreeze they can reuse or sell.
Hopefully scientists can discover other hidden solutions within Mother Nature for more of society’s ever-increasing self-inflicted environmental crises.