Millions of tons of plastic bags end up on landfill sites every year, risking the health of the environment and destroying the natural habitat of certain animals.
But amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini has made an astounding discovery when removing wax worms from honeycombs, which she hopes could help solve the problems caused by plastic bags.
In the wild, the worms live as parasites in bee colonies by laying their eggs inside hives and, once hatched, grow on the beeswax. The worms on Professor Bertocchini’s property had been kept in a plastic shopping bag, which she saw were full of holes.
Professor Bertocchini, from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria (CSIC), Spain, noticed the strange phenomenon, and in collaboration with Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe from the University of Cambridge, they took approximately 100 wax worms and exposed them to supermarket-brand plastic bags.
In just 40 minutes, holes began to appear, and after 12 hours the mass of the plastic bags had reduced by 92mg.
Professor Bombelli said: “If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable”.
“This discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans.”
One of the reasons the worms can break down plastic at such a quick rate is likely because they’re doing it already – when they’re digesting beeswax, a sort of “natural plastic” as Professor Bertocchini calls it, with a chemical structure similar to polyethylene.
The team are planning to use what they have learned from the worms to find a viable way to get rid of plastic waste to save our “oceans, rivers and the entire environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation”.