Wednesday, 26 April 2017

This caterpillar could be the key to biodegradable plastic


April 25, 2017

by Chuck Bednar

A species of caterpillar that typically consumes honey and the wax from beehives may be the answer to the growing problem of plastic waste, as new research has revealed that it can easily devour a commonly used type of the material and cause it to return to a useful compound.

As Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) scientist Federica Bertocchini and her colleagues reported Monday in the journal Current Biology, the larvae of the greater wax moth (or Galleria mellonella) is capable of causing polyethylene, a type of plastic used in shopping bags and food packaging, to biodegrade into a substance that can be used in various consumer products. Bertocchini discovered that the caterpillars, which are also known as wax worms, had a taste for plastic while removing them from beehives, Sky News and the Los Angeles Times explained. As she extracted them, she placed them in plastic bags, and later found those bags full of holes.

Following that discovery, she and her colleagues observed wax worms placed on a polyethylene film and found that in as little as 40 minutes, the insects had already started boring holes through the plastic material. In fact, each worm was consuming it at a rate of roughly 2.2 holes/hour, and a team of 100 caterpillars consumed 92 milligrams of a plastic shopping bag in 12 hours.

To further test the wax moth larvae, they created a slurry of worms and placed it on polyethylene films, the Times said. Fourteen hours later, 13 percent of the plastic’s mass had degraded, and the research team discovered that the worms had left behind ethylene glycol – a compound used as a coolant, a heat transfer agent, and in the manufacturing of polyester fibers and plastic bottles.

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