'Superworms' may hold the key to world's trash crisis A new study from Australia shows that larvae of the darkling beetle can eat polystyrene — the material behind plastic foam.

How 'superworms' could help solve the trash crisis

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Next we have the sound of bugs - bugs that may be helping the planet by eating Styrofoam.



Scientists think these beetles could help people by eating their way out of some of the trash crisis. Australian researcher Chris Rinke studies them.

CHRIS RINKE: They are called superworms. But if you look very close, you can see they actually have six legs. They are actually the larvae of the darkling beetle.

INSKEEP: And who wouldn't want to look very closely? He and his colleagues have been feeding these bugs nothing but polystyrene. That's the scientific name for Styrofoam.

RINKE: They're really eating machines. Their main goal is to gain as much weight as they can to then become a pupa and a beetle. So they're not very picky eaters.

FADEL: The scientists are trying to figure out how the larvae break down the plastic waste.

RINKE: We could, you know, have, like, gigantic worm farms with millions of worms and feed them polystyrene. But what scales way better and is, I would say, also cheaper is to focus on the enzymes.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the insects produce enzymes that break things down - enzymes that, in turn, could one day be reproduced in a lab.

RINKE: Polystyrene waste, which is a rather low-value product - it goes through this biological degradation using the enzymes. And then you can feed it to microbes to then produce something like bioplastic, which is actually a higher-value product.

FADEL: Rinke hopes this work will encourage people to recycle more. His journey into insects and plastic research began during a sailing trip with his wife.

RINKE: We stopped at a beautiful uninhabited island in French Polynesia, and we stayed there for a week. It was paradise. But if you look very carefully, you can see - you're on a tropical island, somewhere thousands of miles away from any continent, and there is plastic debris. And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to look into that.

FADEL: Now he's looking for answers to a big problem inside the guts of a tiny bug.


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