Mother nature never ceases to amaze with a bug that can actually digest plastic
Between food packaging, electronic parts, everyday household items, and even medical care, it’s hard to keep track of just how much plastic you’re using and throwing out on a regular basis. In fact, the true numbers are startling: The average North American consumes over 220 pounds of plastic every year! (7)
Until very recently, scientists haven’t figured out what to do with all the plastic materials being produced and discarded year after year. But a new discovery in the tiny world of bugs could point to the answer our planet desperately needs; it could be the clue to curing the abundance of plastic pollution and its detrimental health and environmental effects.
How plastic pollution affects you and the environment
The United Nations Environmental Program states that between 22 and 43% of all plastics end up in a landfill instead of a recycling plant. It’s estimated that another 5.25 trillion plastic particles are currently floating in our oceans. (7) It’s clear that plastic production is far exceeding our ability to successfully re-use or even properly dispose of it.
Marine pollution: Plastic is light and it tends to float and stay on the surface of the water. Small pieces of plastic trap marine animals and birds who eat fish. These animals also eat plastic by mistake and may become sick and die. Small plastic pieces come from larger pieces of plastic, raw material, and the microbeads that are found in cleaning and personal care products. (5, 6)
Climate change: Biodegradable plastic waste that ends up in a landfill degrades slowly. This is considered a better and more environmentally-friendly way of getting rid of plastic. However, the degradation process produces methane and carbon dioxide, two greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. (3)
Alongside the devastating environmental repercussions, our obsession with plastic is also costing us our health in many cases:
Chemicals in plastic: Bisphenol-A is an industrial chemical found in plastic packaging. BPA is proven to be dangerous to human health. Studies support that this chemical can mimic estrogen and affect metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. (4)
Food chain contamination: The toxins released by the decomposition of plastics in the ocean are consumed by the fish and absorbed into their bodies from the water. Large fish then eat the smaller fish and carry this contamination up the food chain. The plastic items that you dispose of could inevitably return to you through your plate. (2)
Wax Worms: Plastic-eating bugs may be a solution to plastic pollution
Nature always has a way of surviving. A new study found that wax worms, the larvae of the moth Galleria mellonella, can eat and digest plastic. The researchers placed 100 wax worms inside a common plastic shopping bag. Surprisingly, the worms ate their way out of the bag. In 12 hours, 13% of the plastic was eaten. (1)
Sadly, this doesn’t mean that we can spread wax worms on piles of plastic and let them take care of our pollution problem. If these worms were hungry for our plastic, we would have noticed a long time ago. This discovery can prove miraculous for controlling plastic pollution in a different way. It’s not the bug itself that offers the solution, but the chemical processes that it uses to break down the plastic.
This finding means that researchers could imitate the way the worms break down plastic and reproduce it on a larger scale.
What you can do to cut down your plastic consumption
Use reusable bags
Don’t take or buy plastic bags at the store. Sometimes it’s convenient to grab a bag, but you can buy shopping bags made of fabric or non-plastic materials and keep them in your car. You can re-use them and they’re more durable. You can also keep plastic bags that you already have and reuse them.
Don’t buy plastic bottles
If you can’t drink tap water, invest in a water filter. The tap will eventually pay for itself because you won’t have to purchase and discard plastic bottles.
Eat at the restaurant or even better cook at home instead. Think of how much plastic you throw out when you buy take-out, including plastic containers and plastic utensils. You could also carry an individual utensil set in your bag and use it instead of using plastic utensils.
Avoid products with microbeads
These tiny plastic beads are found in personal care and cleaning products and hide in the list of ingredients as polyethylene, polypropylene, or polystyrene. They usually end up in the water through your drain and pollute the ocean. (6)
We all need to take plastic pollution seriously. What these bugs could do in the future for our pollution problem is amazing, but you can also do something for the planet and your health right now.
(1) Bombelli, P., Howe, C. J., Bertocchini, F. (April 24, 2017). Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella. Current Biology, 27(8), 292-293.
(2) Le Guern Lytle, C. (2016). When The Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide. Retrieved from
(3) Levis, J. W. & Barlaz, M. A. (2011). Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model. Environmental Science and Technology, 45(13), 5470–5476.
(4) Mirmira, P., Evans-Molina, C. (July 2014). Bisphenol A, obesity, and type 2 diabetes mellitus: genuine concern or unnecessary preoccupation? Translational Research, The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, 164(1), 13–21.
(5) Readman, J. W., Kadar, E., Readman, J. A. J., Guitart, C. (September 29, 2011). Estuarine and Marine Pollutants. In R. E. Hester & R. M. Harrison (Eds.), Marine Pollution and Human Health (pp. 68-94). Cambrigde, UK: RSC Publishing.
(6) Seltenrich, N. (February 2015). New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety. Environmental Health Perspectives, 123(2), 35-41.
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