Moth larvae that eat plastic

The future of recycling?  Image courtesy of D. Hobern.

The future of recycling?

Image courtesy of D. Hobern.

Plastics carry a heavy environmental impact. While roughly 26% of plastic materials are recycled and 36% are burned for purposes of energy recovery, 38% end up lingering in landfills. While many attempts have been made to get various strains of fungi and bacteria to eat this junk, success has been limited due to the colossal amount of time that it takes these tiny organisms to chew plastic up. Now a new experiment is revealing that a far better way forward would be to put moth larvae to the task.

The team behind the new work thought up their experiment while they were studying the moth species Galleria mellonella which is fond of laying its eggs inside the hives of honey bees and chewing up beeswax. Since beeswax and plastic are structurally not too different, the researchers decided to put the larvae on plastic and monitor their behaviour. Remarkably, holes started to appear in 40 minutes. The authors are arguing that the discovery lays the basis for the development of biotechnological applications that could play a pivotal role in management of plastic waste and, frankly, I'm inclined to agree with them. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.  Alternatively, if you would like to hear me describe the research on The Economist's science podcast, you can do so here.