The worms, which feed on beeswax inside hives and are considered pests by beekeepers, are able to chew through polyethylene, the world’s most widely used plastic, found in everything from plastic bags to bottles.
The research found that enzymes in wax worms’ saliva can degrade polyethylene within hours, rather than the several years, or sometimes decades, it would take under normal conditions.
Polyethylene’s popularity comes from its low cost and high durability. The plastic is a renowned contributor to “fatbergs” in cities like London, which are masses of deposits in sewers created from the accumulations of fats and single-use plastics, among other things. The Museum of London even has one in a permanent exhibition.
Eagle-eyed Londoners will also have noticed the jungle of man-made waste in the Thames, which has recently been identified as one of the world’s most plastic-polluted rivers.
Well, it now appears the humble wax worm could even help us to clean up the Thames, as its enzymes have been found to work in water, too.
A scientist and amateur beekeeper chanced upon this discovery when she realised these worms were chewing through the plastic bags that she had employed to get rid of them from her beehives.
Biologist Federica Bertocchini of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), who led the study, said that the discovery could change “the paradigm of plastic biodegradation”, by making it significantly cheaper to recycle plastics.
The researchers also said they have figured out how to produce the enzymes artificially, eliminating the need to slaughter billions of tiny worms to clean up humanity’s mess.
Unfortunately, the degradation process also generates lots of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. So full commercialisation of the technology is still some time away, as scientists need to figure out how to contain the effects of this while enjoying the benefits of rapid plastic recycling.
UK households have been found to bin 100 billion pieces of plastic a year, with every household throwing away an average of 66 items of single-use plastic a week.