Meet the waxworm, a plastic-eating caterpillar that could solve our waste problem

These ‘plastivores’ could help to reduce the volume of plastic in landfills.

Since the mid-20th Century, plastic production has increased exponentially, and the resulting pollution has become a global environmental issue. Little by little, we are replacing plastics with more environmentally friendly options, but what about the plastic that’s already out there? Maybe Mother Nature can help out.

Advertisement

Meet the waxworm: traditionally thought of as a pest, its love of beeswax may have a surprising benefit.

Wax moth © Daniel Bright
Wax moth © Daniel Bright

Wax moths lay their eggs in beeswax in beehives. When the caterpillars wriggle out, they tunnel through the combs, munching as they go.

Wax moth eggs in beeswax © Daniel Bright
Wax moth eggs in beeswax © Daniel Bright

Beeswax, the caterpillars’ natural diet, and LDPE, a plastic used to make shopping bags, are made from almost identical chains of carbon and hydrocarbon.

Waxworm caterpillar © Daniel Bright
Waxworm caterpillar © Daniel Bright

The caterpillars’ gut bacteria can degrade and process the plastic as a traditional food source, producing biodegradable glycol as a metabolic by-product. These glycol excretions could be reduced by antibiotic treatment, a study has found.

© Daniel Bright
© Daniel Bright

It is hoped that these ‘plastivores’ may hold the key to better understanding how the biodegradation of plastic works, and may even assist in reducing the volume of plastic in landfills.

Read more:

Advertisement