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Taking a Bite Out of Plastic Waste: New Research Offers Unexpected Promise as Permaculture Hack

Reducing plastic pollution has seemed a daunting prospect, until now. Can the tiny Mealworm bite off more than we can chew?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans alone throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year. Styrofoam is a common polystyrene product, which is a type of plastic. These materials pose a significant challenge to environmental health because they are created with robust molecular chains that tend to give them an unusually durable life span of between 500-1000 years. That means the Styrofoam coffee cup you just threw out this morning will be sitting in a landfill or floating on an ocean 500 years from now, potentially endangering ground water and animal life well into the future.

More plastic has been produced in the last ten years than during the entire last century, resulting in enough such waste thrown away each year to circle the earth four times. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, annual global consumption of these materials has soared from an average 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to roughly 300 million tons in 2013, with an average four percent per annum increase in recent years.

Paradoxically, the key to solving one of the largest challenges to good environmental health – and promoting sustainable waste management practices in general – could be held by the tiny mealworm, the larvae form of the darkling beetle. A pair of research papers just published in Environmental Science and Technology reveals groundbreaking findings that offer both progressive recycling solutions and regenerative potential to even the most micro-permaculturalists.

A team of Stanford University engineers collaborating with researchers in China has discovered that microorganisms residing in the digestive tracts of these particular worms are able to rapidly biodegrade the polystyrenes. Remarkably, these tube-shaped invertebrates were fed an exclusive diet of the plastics and lived as long as those fed with a normal bran diet, displaying no signs of impairment to their general health and wellbeing.

This recent development offers promise not only to the general sustainability of the planet, but also to those engaged in permaculture activities.

Styrofoam-eating mealworms from three different sources

Beijing (500 worms), China (a)
Beijing (500 worms), China (a)
Qinhuangdao (500 worms), Hebei, China
Qinhuangdao (500 worms), Hebei, China (b)
Ham Lake (50 worms), MN, the USA
Ham Lake (50 worms), MN, the USA (c)

The Gift of Worms’ Guts

Inhabiting these small creatures is an army of plastic-eating microbes that devour the polystyrene and efficiently transform it essentially into compost. These organisms bring their hearty appetites for polystyrene with an apparent immunity to any potentially harmful contaminants or by-products.

What is astonishing is that when the researchers administered antibiotics to some of the worms, they were unable to degrade the plastic. While these results forecast innovations to recycling, they are of particular importance to those who observe sound permaculture standards.

Wei-Min Wu, a Stanford research engineer and one of the study’s co-authors, characterized the findings as one of the leading advancements in environmental science over the past decade. The research observed 100 mealworms that were fed an exclusive diet of approximately 34 to 39 milligrams (about the weight of a small pill) every day. Not only did this group of mealworms remain as healthy as the bran eating set, but they also converted the plastic into biomass and biodegradable waste safe for use as plant or crop soil.

Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.

Craig Criddle, who supervises plastics research at Stanford.

Perhaps. But perhaps it is comes as no surprise to those who are vigilant about maintaining a certain quality of resilience in their permaculture practices.

Finding integrated solutions in biomimicry and applying cradle-to-cradle designs to technological challenges seems to increasingly be suggested by nature itself. Equipped with this new scientific evidence of the mealworm’s robust probiotic environment, researchers will continue to study whether these benevolent combatants are capable of diminishing other types of plastics used in everything from automobile parts to microbeads commonly found in toiletries and cosmetics, such as exfoliators.

Conclusion: One Small Bite for Mealworms, One Giant Leap for Waste Reduction

There is no question that the implications are dramatic in several critical aspects.

In addition to reducing global plastic obesity, the options it offers to those attentive to sustainable waste reduction are diverse. For those mindful of sustainability in a larger sense, the active pursuit of harvesting polystyrene-munching mealworms and their loyal digestive bacteria are worthy of further exploration and partnership.

These hopeful findings, however, are not a signal to the plastics industry that their products are not environmentally harmful. Reducing the heavy environmental footprints polystyrenes and similar fabrications has left on land and sea requires the responsible application of these findings. To this end, the researchers involved in this study will be following plastic-eating mealworms up the food chain to examine any impacts beyond the limited conclusions of their ongoing study. Furthermore, shedding global plastic weight using these mechanisms will take time to implement.

In the meanwhile, tossing your Styrofoam cups into the compost bin with some mealworms could create a noteworthy amendment not just to the soil, but also to the general constitution of your environment.

Feature Image Courtesy of Marajanecreations under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.


  1. Dear Permaculture Research Institute

    Would it be possible to obtain permission to use one of your photos on our social media site? We would credit the PRI. I am working with a college class on a mealworm experiment and we are just about to begin (so we don’t have a photo yet).

    Thanks so much for considering my request!

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