This article is part of our “Youth Head Delegate Blog Series” — written by our YHDs!
By Michael Z.
Polystyrene, commonly known as styrofoam, is a synthetic plastic used in a variety of applications throughout the world, mostly as cups and packaging. Each year, over 25 million cups are thrown away in the United States alone. This is largely due to polystyrene’s insulating properties and inexpensive production costs, making it a cheap, disposable commodity. The styrene polymer, although ingrained in contemporary consumer packaging and products, has detrimental environmental effects because of its non-biodegradable properties. Similar to many other plastics, polystyrene is non-biodegradable, with scientists estimating that it will take over 500 years for polystyrene to decompose. This is especially alarming because of the high amount of polystyrene within our landfills and ecosystems. While certain measures have been taken to reduce the reliance on polystyrene-based materials, over 30% of our landfills are filled with polystyrene. Furthermore, while some may argue that recycling is a solution to the plastic epidemic, sadly, most plastic doesn’t meet this end. Only 9% of all plastics are recycled, and even worse, only 6% of polystyrene-based materials are recycled.
Because of the non-biodegradable properties of polystyrene, it has resulted in the accumulation of the material upon our beaches, shores, and bodies of water. Polystyrene can be carried by water or wind through waterways into large bodies of water, where it can be decomposed into polystyrene beads, sometimes smaller than a centimetre. These beads can be easily digested by various organisms within the contaminated environment, sometimes resulting in choking or chemical buildup within each respective organism’s system. Collectively, this has created the contemporary plastic epidemic: a problem where plastics like polystyrene have infiltrated natural environments, seemingly an insuperable issue.
Enter the mealworm larvae. The mealworm is the larvae form of the Tenebrio Molitor (mealworm beetle), commonly used as a food source for reptiles and birds. In 2015, scientists from Stanford University discovered that the mealworm larvae could ingest and decompose polystyrene relatively safely. Because of certain microbes within the mealworm’s stomach, they don’t retain the same harmful chemicals that other organisms may perpetuate when digesting polystyrene. When fed a sole diet of polystyrene, the mealworms sustained the same cognitive and somatic health in relation to mealworms fed a normal bran diet. In a group of 100 mealworms, they were able to digest around 40 milligrams of polystyrene a day. Through gel permeation chromatography, the scientists analyzed the feces of the mealworms, which concluded in products of gas (99%) and biomass (1%).
While the amount of biomass produced from ingesting Polystyrene is relatively small, mealworms stand as a possible solution to un-biodegradable polystyrene. Although the logistics and practicality behind mealworms as a large scale answer remain in the air, mealworms do enable new possibilities for plastic management and a brighter future. However, the plastic epidemic cannot be resolved just by mealworms. By utilizing sustainable and reusable commodities, you can stand with mealworms in the fight against polystyrene.