Landfill waste and particularly plastic waste is a problem which continues to scourge the developed and developing world. It is estimated that 8m tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year.
Plastic bags, a major component of plastic waste, are made from the polymeric material polyethylene. It is one of the most common plastics available and it has a wide range of useful applications such as packing, piping and even medical devices. One of the main issues about using this plastic is that it is largely resistant to biodegradation, therefore its longevity means any introduction into an ecosystem can and does have devastating consequences.
The solution to this plastic waste problem has been a conundrum for the last 30 years, since plastic bags were introduced. However, a team at the University of Cambridge may have found the answer. The larvae of the wax moth, are parasites often found in beeswax. These creatures became a research interest when a bee enthusiast who was trying to rid their beehive of the intruders found that these parasites produced holes in the plastic bag they were contained in. This lead to a collaborative study between the University of Cambridge and the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), Spain. 100 wax moth larvae were exposed to a plastic bag from a UK supermarket and after 12 hours there was a dramatic reduction in the amount of plastic present. Although the researchers haven’t identified the exact molecular mechanisms behind this degradation, they confirmed that the worms were breaking the polymer plastic into monomers by a chemical process and not just by eating the plastic! Paolo Bombelli is the first author of the paper which reported this finding, published in the journal Current Biology .
Further work to investigate whether this degradable capability is due to production of an enzyme by the salivary glands or gut of the worms, may lead to a practical solution to deal with plastic waste. This exciting discovery will no doubt be encouraging to environmental conservationists and probably anyone who is tired of looking at plastic bags polluting their local and global environment!!