Could Worms Be One Solution to the Plastic Problem?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Scientists discovered polystyrene biodegrades in the guts of mealworms where the plastic is separated from toxic chemicals and excreted
  • Mealworms don't retain the toxins and continue to be viable as livestock feed
  • Bacteria in the mealworm gut do the heavy lifting in biodegrading the plastic; this is yet another demonstration of the importance of the gut microbiome
  • Your gut microbiome influences many systems and health conditions, including intestinal conditions, mood, obesity, Parkinson's and chronic fatigue. Consider using probiotic and prebiotic foods to support the health of your beneficial bacteria

In 2013, the world produced 299 million tons of plastic, of which polystyrene — one brand name is Styrofoam — is one part. A report by the Worldwatch Institute showed that this number increased by 3.9% from the year before.1 As demonstrated in this short video, polystyrene currently may account for one-third of the contents of landfills; worms may be one answer to the problem.

Expanded polystyrene foam (EPF) was first discovered in 1839,2 becoming popular during World War II in material used to build military aircraft. Production grew at a phenomenal rate during this time; in 1946 Dow Chemical Company began working to make it more flexible. This resulted in the polystyrene product we now know: It’s moisture resistant and light weight because 98% of it is air.

Unfortunately, polystyrene doesn’t decompose. It does degrade somewhat, but not enough to keep marine life from eating it, filling their stomachs with plastic so they essentially starve to death for lack of nourishment. The chemicals in polystyrene harm wildlife on land, too, as they leach out and eventually make their way into the food chain.

Despite this knowledge, some sing the praises of this plastic, citing an overall life cycle assessment that has a lower footprint than other types of packaging material. However, despite the accolades, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio did not agree and, in 2015, he announced a law to ban its use in all five boroughs,3 “removing nearly 30,000 tons of … waste from our landfills, streets and waterways.”

The ban was not enforced until July 1, 2019,4 making New York the largest city to ban the product from use. Miami Beach, Seattle, San Diego and Washington, D.C., also have bans in place, while the states of Connecticut, Maine and Maryland are in various stages of legislation to ban use.

Polystyrene Responsible for One-Third of Landfill Content

In 2017 Metro New York reported that New York City’s department of sanitation handled 12,000 tons of garbage every day.5 On a nationwide scale, EPA data6 from 2017 showed that the U.S. generated 268 million tons of waste, of which 13% was plastic.

While that doesn’t tell you how much of the city’s or nation’s trash is polystyrene, researchers at Stanford University7 found that Americans dispose of 2.5 billion plastic foam cups every year.

That represents only a small portion of the plates, takeout containers and building materials in which polystyrene is used. But to give you give an idea of how serious this issue is, the Los Angeles Times8 reported in 2017 that, of the 9.1 billion tons of plastics ever produced, 5.4 billion has ended up in landfills or somewhere else in the environment.

The ban on polystyrene in New York was triggered in part by its physical properties: It is easily carried by the wind and difficult to remove because it is brittle. It develops an electrostatic charge causing it to cling to other material. The ban in New York affected 850,000 students served lunches on foam trays.

To give the product other attributes, the foam can be laced with chemicals such as flame retardants and other endocrine disrupting chemicals. But, exposure to flame retardants during pregnancy is associated with a lower IQ in children9 and neurodevelopmental disorders.10 One way this might happen is the influence flame retardants have on thyroid hormones.

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Environmental Impact of Mealworms May Be Profound

In a detailed 45-page report, Styrofoam critics presented evidence rebutting multiple arguments that polystyrene has a smaller carbon footprint and that society could not continue to function without it. The researchers concluded:11

“Though Styrofoam is relatively inexpensive to produce, the social costs of its production involve the use of hazardous chemicals, fossil fuels, and the emission of greenhouse gases.

The lightweight yet durable nature of Styrofoam that makes it good for single-use consumer products also yields it not readily recyclable and leads to its accumulation in landfills and as litter in waterways and highways. Finally, though Styrofoam itself is unreactive, the compounds used in its production have been identified as harmful to human health.”

To say this is a serious issue is an understatement — however, there may be hope in a recent study by Stanford researchers who found that little mealworms may hold part of the answer to the giant plastics problem facing the Earth. In past research,12 data showed mealworms could eat through the foam and other forms of plastic.

In January 201813 a published study revealed the optimal conditions for consuming plastic happened at 77 Fahrenheit (25 Celsius) with 6% to 11% of bran supplementing the polystyrene. This same study found the second generation of mealworms fed a bran and polystyrene mixture could degrade more plastic, faster.

A new team14 looked at whether the same species of mealworms could eat polystyrene laced with toxic chemicals and still be safely consumed by livestock.15 The researchers sought to determine where the toxic chemicals would be deposited after the mealworms consumed the plastic, hoping for a proof of concept to derive some value from the tons of plastic waste littering the planet.16

In this study the worms were fed a steady diet of plastic infused with HBCD, a chemical the EU plans to ban because it is a neurotoxin and an endocrine disruptor. After eating the plastic, the worms excreted 90% of the HBCD in 24 hours and the remaining after 48 hours.

What’s more, the worms appeared as healthy as those fed a normal diet, and the shrimp that ate the experimental worms also appeared to remain healthy. One of team member commented: "This is definitely not what we expected to see. It's amazing that mealworms can eat a chemical additive without it building up in their body over time."

The mealworms were able to degrade the plastic during digestion. They also were able to separate the toxic chemical from the plastic and concentrate it, possibly making it easier to control.17 The researchers note while this may be helpful, it is not nearly as effective as eliminating the use of neurotoxic chemicals.

The mealworms are easy to cultivate and are known as an agricultural pest, as they eat nearly everything in their path. The scientists pointed out that it was the population of bacteria living in the worms’ guts that actually degraded the plastic, not the mechanical digestion in the mealworm — so you can see that, even for a little mealworm, their gut bacteria is important.

Flame Retardant Chemicals Remain Hazardous After Eating

The mealworms may be one strategy to help reduce plastic pollution, but the danger of toxic chemicals within the plastic remains. In the mid-1970s, certain household items were required to be treated with flame retardant chemicals, including furniture, carpeting and children’s clothing and toys.

Legislators may have believed they were helping preserve public health, but they failed to account for the damage the chemicals would have on children and adults as they leached out of the products into the environment.

The form of flame retardant currently in use is terribly dangerous, since it may be inhaled, swallowed and absorbed through the skin, accumulating in your fatty tissue.18 The earlier flame retardants were from a family of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were replaced with organophosphate ester flame retardants (OPFRs) when the PBDEs were phased out.

Scientists have found OPFRs are often at levels 10 to 100 times higher in water, air and dust than were PBDEs.19 Additionally, they were also found in nearly every person who participated in research studies. In several, data showed the OPFRs were at levels high enough to negatively affect healthy brain development in children and fertility in adults.

It was expected OPFRs would be less persistent then PBDEs in the environment. However, predicting their presence is difficult to measure based on the compounds’ physical and chemical properties. You'll find a more in-depth discussion of the dangers related to flame retardant chemicals currently in use at "Experts Fear Flame Retardants Are Triggering a Health Crisis."

Gut Bacteria Doing the Heavy Lifting

As mentioned, the researchers in the most recent study pointed to the bacteria inhabiting the mealworm gut as crucial to the process of degrading the polystyrene based on work published in 2015.20 In this study scientists were able to demonstrate the eradication of specific bacterial species in the mealworms' gut eliminated the ability to degrade polystyrene.

The researchers were able to stop the ability to depolymerize the plastic by feeding them gentamicin. By analyzing excrement, they found a bacterial strain, Exiguobacterium sp. strain YT2, in the gut of the mealworm was essential to the biodegradation of the material.

Importance of the Gut Microbiome

Evidence from small mealworms more than adequately demonstrates the importance of gut bacteria. The composition of your gut microbiome may be as distinct as your fingerprint and plays an enormous role in your health and disease prevention. It influences your immune system and a variety of internal organs, such as your lungs, breasts and liver.21

One study by the National Institutes of Health showed the gut microbiome could alter immune cells in the liver and trigger tumor growth.22 Your gut microbiome also has a strong influence over the development of intestinal conditions such as celiac disease or food allergies.

However, it also influences obesity,23 depression,24 chronic fatigue25 and Parkinson's disease.26 One factor may be the bidirectional role the gut plays in sleep. Research data show a link between insomnia and depression, that may be altered by the composition of the gut microbiome.27 Alterations in sleep cycles may increase your risk of health damage.

Although it is impossible to determine the exact diversification of an ideal microbiome, researchers have been able to change the composition in some with Type 2 diabetes to reverse the disease.28

While most experienced a short-term improvement, this may have been related to the state of the gut microbiome before transplantation and the care and feeding of the new bacterial species after transplantation.

Changing Small Habits May Reap Big Rewards

An effective means of protecting the health of your gut microbiome is to provide a rich source of probiotics by eating fermented foods. You can easily and inexpensively make these at home as I demonstrate in this short video. Fermented foods can be an outstanding source of essential nutrients, such as Vitamin K2.

They help to boost your immune system and may be some of the best chelators available. As potent detoxifiers, fermented foods draw out toxins and heavy metals from the bloodstream. Fermented foods also provide a natural variety of microflora, much wider than you can receive in supplement form.

In addition to adding beneficial microflora to the gut, eating prebiotic foods can help them thrive. Prebiotics are found in fiber rich foods good bacteria prefer. On the other hand, pathogenic disease-causing microbes thrive on sugar and carbohydrates. When you focus on a whole, natural foods diet plan you support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and help keep harmful bacteria in check.