Mealworms: A Solution To A Styrofoam Problem?

at the bird market

A lesson I’ve learned at Green School is that there are resources for innovation all around us, sometimes even at the bird market in Denpasar. Pak Mo, one of the LEAP teachers shared with us a video he had seen that talked about how mealworms eat styrofoam. This generated a lot of curiosity and made me really want to get some worms and try it out.

On Friday we went to the Denpasar bird market to try and find some dead animals for another project and meal worms. Right away there was a shop that sold the worms. There were two different kinds, I recognised one kind as meal worms but the other kind we couldn’t figure out what they were. they looked like smaller darker versions of the mealworms. We asked the shop owners if they knew what kind of worms they were, but no one knew. So we decided to buy some of both the worms.

When we got back to school we put the worms in different containers with different types of styrofoam. We put the mealworms in a container with styrofoam, and the smaller mystery worms in a container with the same kind of styrofoam. We also put the little worms in a separate container with a plastic bag in it. We left them to enjoy their plastic meal over the weekend. We didn’t know if we would come back on Monday and they would all be dead or alive. It was really fun to come back to class the following week and see that they many not only survived, but had actually eaten some of the styrofoam. Not all of them had survived; a container that had the little worms and the plastic bag had all died and it smelled terrible. I felt bad for killing the worms, but they would have been fed to birds anyways. A few people have actually come up to us and complained about animal mistreatment because they think we are poisoning the worms, but that is not the case. The worms have a special bacteria in their stomach that can process the styrofoam without poisoning themselves. They can eat the plastic and turn it into compost! Another thing that makes the worms great is that in Bali we have a huge problem with dirty trash. Most of the trash is not sorted and therefore cannot be recycled because it is too dirty.

My initial reaction to discovering that mealworms can eat and process styrofoam was that they could be a solution to the massive amounts of plastic waste in Bali, but It takes a long time for the worms to eat a very small amount of the styrofoam. This means that you would need pools full of worms to only eat small amounts of the waste. I don’t think it is productive enough to be successful. However, that doesn’t mean we should forget about the little guys. Currently, scientists are working on studying the bacteria in the worms stomachs to see if they can use it to eat the plastic without needing the worm.

Although I don’t believe mealworms will be the ones to save us from the doom of our own indestructible trash, they are helping us discover something that might. When I learn about creatures so common and so overlooked as mealworms being possible solutions to important problems, I remember that there are solutions all around us and for many problems you can look to the natural world for knowledge. I believe that we have all the solutions we need if we just look close enough.