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Plastic-eating wax worms may solve India’s plastic problem

These tiny worms are able to degrade polythene relatively quickly. Sixty of India’s major cities generate 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste each day, adding to about 12.7 million kg of plastic that enters the earth’s oceans. This figure could double in the next decade.

world Updated: Apr 25, 2017 20:14 IST
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Plastic after being biodegraded by 10 worms for 30 minutes.(CSIC Communications Department)

A few years ago when the Supreme Court heard of the status of plastic pollution in India the bench remarked “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”

Not much has changes in the recent years. A 2015 Central Pollution Control Board surveyfound that 60 of India’s major cities generated 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. Of the waste that is collected an overwhelming amount of waste is neither recycled nor treated, it lands up in landfills or is dumped in water bodies.

Now, a chance by Spanish scientist, Federica Bertocchini at the Spanish National Research Council may help deal with India’s plastic problem. Bertocchini who is also an amateur beekeeper, left a closed plastic bag full of wax worms in her room while she cleaned the panels they had infested. When she returned the room was full of the worms.

“There was only one explanation: the worms had made the holes and had escaped. This project began there and then,” said the scientist, who along with researchers at the University of Cambridge in UK discovered that the worms were capable of degrading polythene, one of the toughest material in the world.

Every year. about 12.7 million kg of plastic enters the earth’s oceans and this figure could double in the next decade, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

“One hundred wax worms are capable of biodegrading 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours, which really is very fast,” she said. It may sound tardy but left alone low-density plastic bags can take around a century to break down completely.

This is why many corners of the planet are infested with the material. There are large plumes of plastic waste floating around in our oceans refusing to go away and finding their way to the stomachs of marine animals. In March two sperm whales who beached on Germany’s coast were found with plastics and car parts in their bellies.They are neither the first nor the last.

The exact way in which the worms break down the plastic is being studied but the scientists suggest that the make-up of beeswax is similar to that of polythene so the worm can used the same mechanism to degrade both. All that needs to be done is to keep the cocoon in contact with polythene and it leads to the plastic degrading.

The cocoon phase follows the larva phase. After the larva sheds the cocoon it emerges as a moth. Perhaps these worms can transform the face of the planet as they undergo their own transformation.

The study will be published in the next issue of Current Biology.

Plastic waste produced ever day in major cities

Delhi: 689.5 tonnes

Chennai (429.4 tonnes),

Kolkata (425.7 tonnes)

Mumbai (408.3 tonnes).

Daily addition to untreated plastic

Delhi : 275.6 tonnes

Chennai (171.6 tonnes),

Kolkata (170 tonnes)

Mumbai (163.2 tonnes)

Source: CPCB

First Published: Apr 25, 2017 20:14 IST