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Wriggly Solution To Plastic Pollution: The Caterpillar That Eats Plastic

Date: 24-May-17
Author: Elise Catterall

Johnathan Plant, Alamy via National Geographic © Claire Bell

Johnathan Plant, Alamy via National Geographic

In the face of serious concerns that by 2050 there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish, scientists may have found a wriggly solution to the problem: a plastic-eating caterpillar.

The impact of plastic waste on the environment, especially from polyethylene plastic shopping bags, is undisputed. We know the many issues this waste causes, for example, the filling up of landfill spaces, the creation of greenhouse gases through their production, and most distressingly, the threat they pose to marine life.

Clean Up Australia, reporting back in 2009, stated that there was an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean and that this plastic was responsible for the deaths of 1 million sea birds and over 100,000 sea mammals each year.

When it comes to the issues posed by plastic shopping bags, there are two important aspects to consider: the sheer number of plastic bags used by consumers (estimated to be around one trillion per annum, worldwide), and the fact that plastic is such a difficult product to biodegrade. Each amplifies the impact of the other.

The good news is that scientists may have found an unusual solution to the problem of plastic shopping bag waste – the wax worm caterpillar. As strange as it may sound, there is genuine excitement in the environmental science arena around the discovery of this little insect that can devour soft plastics.

Lead researcher, Federica Bertocchini, stumbled upon the discovery when tending her own bee hives. After removing caterpillars from her hives, she found that they made significant holes in the plastic bag she placed them in. This led to formal study of the caterpillars’ plastic-consuming behaviour to confirm the finding.

The researchers – a team of collaborators from University of Cantabria, the Spanish National Research Council, and Cambridge University - believe that enzymes in the saliva or gut of the caterpillars digest the chemical bonds in the plastic, in the same manner as they digest the bonds in the wax of beehives.

First author of the study, Paolo Bombelli of Cambridge University, said that “it is extremely, extremely exciting because breaking down plastic has proved so challenging”.

Bertocchini also commented, saying “we are planning to implement this finding into a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation”

Of course, the emphasis should still, and always, be on lowering production and consumption of soft plastics and recycling more, but this unique discovery is a positive step forward for managing plastic waste.

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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.  


Elise                                             Catterall
Author: Elise Catterall

Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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