Wax moth caterpillars solve our waste plastic problem

There are exactly two radical solutions to the problem of pollution of the planet with plastic waste. First, the production of this material can be drastically reduced by focusing on recycling and reuse. Secondly, it is possible to invent a method for its final destruction, complete decomposition and return of the original substances to nature. And if the first, taking into account the disagreements tormenting humanity, seems unrealistic, then in the second scenario, a small caterpillar Galleria mellonella may become our ally.

Back in 2017, biologists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe found that the larvae of Galleria mellonella (wax moth) easily got out of the sturdy bags in which they were transported. They simply ate their way to freedom - when the biologists had already purposefully started feeding them polyethylene, the caterpillars again showed an excellent appetite. A herd of 100 individuals completely digested 92 mg of plastic in 12 hours, for their own benefit and without harm to the environment.

The wax moth is a parasite of the honeycomb, it lays inside the larvae, which grow by eating the wax. This is a complex and durable material, it consists of a whole mixture of lipid compounds, among which there are almost direct analogs of polyethylene in terms of chemical composition. In other words, wax moth faces naturally have the ability to feed on plastic, and one of its most resistant to decay forms.

This does not mean that we urgently need to build farms for growing caterpillars and send their armadas to landfills. Caterpillars will not eat more than they need, and cannot compete with the rate of garbage generation by humanity. The solution seems to be to study the mechanisms of operation of this living recycler and create on their basis biotechnological solutions for the industrial processing of plastic waste.