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Could Trash-Eating Worms That Feed on Styrofoam Help Save the Planet?

A new study found a worm that feeds on Styrofoam and could keep waste out of landfills. But can these critters really help change the world?

Written by
Tehrene Firman

Styrofoam is a major problem for the planet. Used in packaging materials, to-go coffee cups, takeout containers, and beyond, you probably come across it at least a few times a week. Unfortunately, it's typically a non-recyclable material. That means most of the Styrofoam products produced each year are sent straight to landfills.

Styrofoam takes around 500 years to break down in a landfill. Since it's estimated to take up to 30% of landfill space, that's a lot of trash piling up—and not disappearing anytime soon. In a new study published in the journal of Microbial Genomics, scientists revealed an unlikely solution: a trash-consuming worm that can survive on an all-Styrofoam diet.

Meet the Worm That Feeds on Styrofoam

In the paper, the scientists from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, shared research that found the larvae of the darkling beetle Zophobas morio were able to completely survive on Styrofoam, also known as polystyrene.

In a reenactment of the study to demonstrate the process, several dozens of the worms were placed in a clear storage box in the lab with the Styrofoam. According to a press release, their communal chewing "sounds like the moment milk is poured onto a bowl of Rice Bubbles, or when popping candy lands on the tongue."

Now that these hungry worms have proven themselves to be a viable option for reducing waste, what's next? From these findings, researchers are looking closely at the enzymes that make it possible for the superworms to digest Styrofoam. The hope is that it can be turned into a product that allows waste managers to get rid of Styrofoam naturally, preventing it from clogging up landfills.

"I'm waiting to find out if I’ve secured more funding to further research the superworm’s gut enzymes," said microbiologist Christian Rinke, the study's co-author, in a press release. "The potential of this project could take five-plus years to become viable, but I’d love to see it through."

Can Worms Help Save the Planet?

If Rinke's new research works out, it could greatly benefit the planet. According to the Washington Post, it would enable waste managers to collect and grind the Styrofoam materials, then add them into a liquid solution that was made with the superworm enzyme.

"The solution would ideally dispose of the Styrofoam or digest it in a way that allows new plastic products to be created, thereby reducing the need for new plastic materials," says Rinke.

These superworms may be the superheroes we've been hoping for all along.