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Earth Science

Foam-Eating Worms May Offer Solution To Mounting Waste 90

ckwu writes: Polystyrene foams—including products like Styrofoam—are rarely recycled, and the materials biodegrade so slowly that they can sit in a landfill for hundreds of years. But a pair of new studies shows that mealworms will dine on polystyrene foam when they can't get a better meal, converting almost half of what they eat into carbon dioxide. In one study, the researchers fed mealworms polystyrene foam and found that the critters converted about 48% of the carbon they ate into carbon dioxide and excreted 49% in their feces. In the second study, the researchers showed that bacteria in the mealworms' guts were responsible for breaking down the polystyrene--suggesting that engineering bacteria might be a strategy for boosting the reported biodegradation.
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Foam-Eating Worms May Offer Solution To Mounting Waste

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  • by adolf ( 21054 )

    I have some mealworms upstairs. Should I sprinkle them on the styrofoam pile in the garage that only the landfill will accept locally?

  • CO2 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 01, 2015 @02:10AM (#50633691)

    Good, because if there's one thing we need, it's more atmospheric CO2.

    • by evanh ( 627108 )

      That's what I was thinking. Last thing we want is to convert it to more CO2. It's better to leave it in the landfill until global warming is sorted at least.

    • Re:CO2 (Score:4, Informative)

      by DrXym ( 126579 ) on Thursday October 01, 2015 @04:36AM (#50634047)
      I assume anyone going to bother of doing this would feed the output from the worm farm into a secondary chamber filled with algae or bacteria which would consume the CO2 to produce fuel or something along those lines.
      • I would hope so. Given our rather significant issues with excess atmospheric CO2 right now, the last thing we need is to dig up old polystyrene and create more. That might make sense once we've reigned in total CO2 and/or can do a full capture of what these worms output, but for now I say let sleeping foam dogs lie. (though absolutely keep working on the science/tech in the meantime)
    • Would you prefer they shit diamonds? Being serious here, but you do know that polystyrene foam is made from refined oil, yes? Once the oil is extracted, you can either A) leave it in a tank. B: make it into something and bury it into the ground. C) Covert it back into CO2 via burning or organic methods.

      What would you prefer is done with the existing polystyrene foam out there?

      • Re:CO2 (Score:4, Informative)

        by donaggie03 ( 769758 ) <d_osmeyer AT hotmail DOT com> on Thursday October 01, 2015 @06:36AM (#50634325)

        Would you prefer they shit diamonds? Being serious here, but you do know that polystyrene foam is made from refined oil, yes? Once the oil is extracted, you can either A) leave it in a tank. B: make it into something and bury it into the ground. C) Covert it back into CO2 via burning or organic methods.

        What would you prefer is done with the existing polystyrene foam out there?

        The obvious answer is leave it buried in the ground. Anthropogenic global warming is caused by us taking carbons that have been locked away underground in the form of fossil fuels and releasing them into the atmosphere. If we use those fossil fuels but keep the carbon locked up or re-entered into the ground instead of the atmosphere, we wouldn't have nearly as much trouble with all the greenhouse effects. We'd have another problem in the form of mountains of waste we don't know what to do with, but that's a different discussion.

        • Would you prefer they shit diamonds? Being serious here, but you do know that polystyrene foam is made from refined oil, yes? Once the oil is extracted, you can either A) leave it in a tank. B: make it into something and bury it into the ground. C) Covert it back into CO2 via burning or organic methods.

          What would you prefer is done with the existing polystyrene foam out there?

          The obvious answer is leave it buried in the ground. Anthropogenic global warming is caused by us taking carbons that have been locked away underground in the form of fossil fuels and releasing them into the atmosphere. If we use those fossil fuels but keep the carbon locked up or re-entered into the ground instead of the atmosphere, we wouldn't have nearly as much trouble with all the greenhouse effects. We'd have another problem in the form of mountains of waste we don't know what to do with, but that's a different discussion.

          So you like deserts?

        • Except that it doesn't stay in the ground. Much of it flows out into the ocean, floats around forever getting broken into smaller and smaller pieces and ends up killing things.
          • You believe that the material in landfills 'flows out into the ocean'?

            Have you ever considered that the source of the oceanic plastic waste may not be 'any source of plastic waste we happen to be discussing right now'?
            Read this: http://water.epa.gov/type/oceb... [epa.gov]

            • Well, I was more referring to the waste that never makes it into the ground. But up until this article, there were no known natural processes that broke down plastics aside from sunlight. So, that waste sits in the landfill indefinitely until natural erosive and/or other geological forces move it into the sea, or down into the earth where it's destroy by heat.
              • - "The obvious answer is leave it buried in the ground."
                = "Except that it doesn't stay in the ground." ...
                = "I was more referring to the waste that never makes it into the ground."

                That is a pretty silly sequence of sentences, don't you think?
                The solution is simple: just retract your initial statement and say that it's better to leave plastic buried in landfills than convert it to CO2 until we have a better way of dealing with it. Trying to inject the effects of buried plastic on geological time scales into

                • My original reply was poorly worded. I retract it. And replace it with this: Perhaps we should ask which is worse, the extra CO2, or preventing *some* of the plastics from spilling over into the ocean where they can stay for thousands of years. I'm not which is worse because I don't know. I'm just pointing out that all that plastic lying around isn't as innocuous as everyone thinks.
                  • I salute your act of retraction. It is praiseworthy.

                    I'm just pointing out that all that plastic lying around isn't as innocuous as everyone thinks.

                    I agree that putting time and effort into preventing plastic from entering our oceans is wise. I do believe we should do so in a rational way and choose the most efficient solutions for the problems. Research into bacteria that mitigate the issues is definitely one of the roads to efficient solutions. You may find this interesting:
                    http://news.discovery.com/eart... [discovery.com]

                    Nature is a very versatile thing.

    • "Good, because if there's one thing we need, it's more atmospheric CO2."

      Because a small amount of additional CO2 is less of a problem than a large amount of landfilled styrofoam.

      • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

        Why do we think that breaking down a *large* amount of trash into is going to release a *small* amount of CO2? Sure, it may be less than cow farts, but it can't be trivial.

        • Styrofoam is specifically designed to be bulky (high volume to weight) and is not recyclable. As has been pointed out above, the only way to dispose of it now is to burn it, which releases worse stuff into the atmosphere.

          • Really? Because a lot of the styrofoam around here has the little recycle icon on it, with a number inside (usually 6 or 7 or something like that); and items with that icon and those numbers are accepted at the recycling depots around here.

            Somehow, I don't think the recycle depots are taking in the styrofoam for free and just turning around and burning it.

    • The article hit me the same way. We need to find out how to capture and bind CO2 in such a way as it remains isolated from us.
    • +1. I fail to see the harm being created by idle plastic sitting in landfills.

  • Why bother with all the hassle of trying to isolate the bacteria then trying to figure out how to grow it on an industrial scale when we could just breed better mealworms -- better in the sense of being able to digest a higher percentage of the styrofoam.

  • If we're going to convert it to CO2 anyway, why not simply burn it in the first place? Then we'd get some heat as a bonus, too.

  • Why? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 01, 2015 @02:32AM (#50633765)

    polystyrene can be burned cleanly emitting the same amount of CO2 and also be refined through pyrolysis to useful carbohydrate usable as fuel in diesel and gas vehicles.

    The only argument for using meal worms is that the Styrofoam is mixed with household waste or in a land fill where it's too dirty to recover.

    This is a poor band aid for a failed recycle system!

    • burning and cleaning both take energy. if the worms are able to compost this, that's a natural, lower impact way of dealing with this waste.
  • by bjwest ( 14070 ) on Thursday October 01, 2015 @02:43AM (#50633801)
    Not to worry, future generations, possibly even some living now, will be mining our landfills for resources.
  • I, for one, welcome our new detrimental polystyrene-eating overlords.
  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Thursday October 01, 2015 @03:26AM (#50633875)
    Polystyrene is mostly air. If you dunk it in a solvent like acetone, it dissolves, releasing the air and decreasing to something like 1% its original volume. Why isn't this considered a viable way to deal with polystyrene trash?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 01, 2015 @03:52AM (#50633959)

      Recycling centers don't like dealing with Napalm B, and your government would prefer you don't have it around also.

    • I suspect that the problem is dealing with mixed/contaminated waste streams. Outside of the lucky folks doing nuclear remediation, a lot of waste materials aren't actually too unpleasant to deal with if they would have the decency to show up clean and sorted. If you had a bunch of polystyrene foam you could indeed attack it with solvents, melt it, crush it, if you wanted to reduce its volume; or incinerate it according to the correct parameters if you wanted to get rid of it; and it'd probably actually be w
    • And then what the hell do you do with a vat of acetone and dissolved polystyrene?

      You've essentially turned it into a whole new kind of nasty waste. How do you plan on disposing of that?

  • "normal" plastic wont break down under typical conditions on Earth so the best thing we can do is change the type of plastic we are using to something that will degrade over a much shorter period of time or can be metabolized by most living things. the good news is we have already invented many variants of plastic that meet this requirement and they have been named bioplastics. why are we still using these plastics that are bad for everyone? it's a simple matter of money and legal [ir]responsibility.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Because for many purposes we don't want to it degrade quickly. Think for example of childrens toys, where you don't want the plastic to start falling apart for at least a decade. Or anything used as a building material. You're absolutely right that this sort of thing should replace packaging materials though.

  • by idbeholda ( 2405958 ) on Thursday October 01, 2015 @03:57AM (#50633969) Journal
    But congress is notoriously non-biodegradable, and they don't really do much for the environment anyways. At least the garbage attracts flies. Why not start with them first?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I suggest the use of the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_toad. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Those photos set off my trypophobia something chronic.
  • Mealworm co2 generation FTW!

  • Back when I was a kid in Russia we had a big garbage container outside our kindergarden filled to the brim with worms. We threw in the foam that was lying around near by and watched it disolve. Good times.
    • Back when I was a kid in Russia we had a big garbage container outside our kindergarden filled to the brim with worms. We threw in the foam that was lying around near by and watched it disolve. Good times.

      In Soviet Russia worms garbage you?

  • By all means (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 01, 2015 @06:23AM (#50634281)
    Please spread polystyrene eating bacteria indiscriminately. Because it's not used as light structural support in anything at all.
  • by AndyKron ( 937105 ) on Thursday October 01, 2015 @07:12AM (#50634507)
    The EPA should tighten up the limits on meal worm CO2 emissions, and force them to put more in their feces.
  • "Scientists seek solution to uncontrolled worm infestation".

    The law of unintended consequences is always hiring.
  • Back in the early nineties I read an article that someone received a patent for a bacteria that when spread across a garbage dump would eat the garbage and its waste would be methanol. Where is that today?
  • You wouldn't want to put polystyrene with, say, broccoli, because the worms might prefer it and ignore their serving of polystyrene, but if you pair the polystyrene with something less delicious (fiberglass, maybe) then the worms will eat their polystyrene right up.

    They still recycle polystyrene into Rastra [rastra.com], but soon genetically engineered bacteria can make your Leed certified house emit CO2.
  • by mpercy ( 1085347 ) on Thursday October 01, 2015 @09:06AM (#50635171)

    Polystyrene would keep that CO2 sequestered for what, 1000 years or so? And now they've just released more into the atmosphere with the cow farts and Volkswagen emissions!

  • If you want to convert Styrofoam to CO2, just burn it. But why would you want to do this?

    In a landfill, Styrofoam really does not hurt anything.

  • When will the mealworm-to-SodaStream adapter be ready so we can stop paying inflated prices for CO2?
  • Wouldn't it be a much more beneficial project if they found a way to convert CO2 into polystyrene. Creating a parasite that eats houses, boats, marina's and refrigerators in order to dump green house gases into the world seems like a bad idea. Why do we hate plastic so much? If the forest floor is covered with plastic, and the plants are growing around it, so what? Sure plastic has some stuff in it that is mildly toxic but its only released when the plastics break down, which is contrary of the argument of
  • Potting soil and seed starting soil contain fillers like vermiculite to keep the mix light and airy. Polystyrene foam would be a perfect additive.

APL is a write-only language. I can write programs in APL, but I can't read any of them. -- Roy Keir

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