Laura Cho, Peninsula HS, 9th Grade
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a wax worm!
Saving the earth, one plastic bag at a time.
Around a trillion plastic bags are used each year throughout the world, and only 3% of this amount is recycled. The rest is dumped into landfills or the ocean. Because a plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, all of this plastic waste builds and congests the ecosystem without degrading. What can we do to help stop the earth from suffocating in plastic waste, in addition to recycling and using less plastic?
A surprising solution may be found in the common Galleria mellonella caterpillars, often referred to as “wax worms.” Wax worms are parasites usually found in beehives. These larvae consume beeswax but can also eat polyethylene, the same type of plastic used to make disposable shopping bags. This extraordinary discovery could lead to the development of a practical method of biodegrading the notorious amount of plastic polluting our oceans and landfills.
Federica Bertocchini, a biologist and beekeeping enthusiast, inadvertently uncovered this biodegradable breakthrough. When she was disposing some of the wax worms that were plaguing her beehives by placing them into plastic shopping bags, holes started appearing in the bags. It was clear after closer inspection that the wax worms were not only chewing a way out of the bags, but actually eating the bags themselves.
“Wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic,’ and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene,” Bertocchini said. Although the chemistry behind this fortunate coincidence is unclear for now, scientists believe that the wax worms’ ability to absorb and digest polyethylene and beeswax incorporates the breakdown of similar types of chemical bonds.
Bertocchini and her research team wanted to further investigate the mystery of the wax worm, to ensure that it wasn’t just the caterpillars’ chewing action that degraded the plastic. They observed that plastic disposable bags deteriorated at a rapid rate even when the wax worms were mashed up and spread across the bags, showing that either the caterpillars themselves or bacteria in their gut were producing some sort of enzyme that broke down plastic.
With this significant breakthrough, scientists believe that a practical solution to plastic degradation is now possible. Glen Baldwin, an environmental scientist in the Plastics Recycling Unit at CalRecycle said, “Scientists could isolate the enzymes that are responsible for breaking the carbon bonds of the polyethylene, and perhaps use that as a chemical recycling of the material. Because [the wax worm] takes the plastic and breaks it down into ethylene glycol, which is also known as anti-freeze, it could be digested into a usable commodity.”
With its tremendous plastic biodegrading super hero ability packed into such a tiny body, the common wax worm is a promising option to supplement our recycling effort to save the earth, one plastic bag at a time.
<Lauren Cho, Peninsula HS, 9th Grade