Can worms show the way to tackle the plastic litter problem? Incongruous as it may seem, that question could be serious, given the discovery that certain caterpillars seem able to digest and biodegrade polyethylene film.
Researchers in Spain and England say they found that the so-called wax worm, normally bred for fishing bait, can munch on PE bags, creating holes in the bag, and leaving behind what could be signature degradation products of PE.
It seems wax worms, which are really caterpillars of the greater wax moth Galleria mellonella, are able to break the carbon-carbon bonds in PE's molecular backbone. These bonds are normally resistant to decay, one reason PE finds such wide use in bags and other plastic packaging.
If a caterpillar can break C-C bonds, it's theoretically possible this research opens a new path to dealing with the huge problem of plastic litter accumulating on the planet.
The discovery was serendipitous, as discoveries often are. Scientist and beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was cleaning one of her beehives when she discarded wax worms from the hive into a PE bag. To her credit, she noticed that holes began appearing in the bag after only 40 minutes.