125 Stanford Stories

NO. 12

As global waste accumulates, plastic-eating worms may offer solution

Mealworms thrive on Styrofoam diet

The common mealworm may be able to eat a way out of the global plastic problem. Stanford engineers, in collaboration with researchers in China, have found that mealworms, the larval form of the darkling beetle, can live on a diet of plastic waste, specifically Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene.

It turns out that the gut of a mealworm contains microorganisms that biodegrade plastic, a surprising finding published in two companion studies co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford.

Testing the mealworm’s “iron gut” on different types of plastic is the next step in research that offers tremendous potential to develop solutions for managing plastic waste. Other avenues of inquiry include identifying a marine version of the mealworm that could eat through plastic accumulating in the ocean.

Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, is collaborating with Wu and an international team of researchers to learn more about the mealworm’s digestive capabilities. Criddle’s plastics research was originally funded in 2004 by the Stanford Woods Institute’s Environmental Venture Projects. The program supports Stanford’s long-standing commitment to advance innovative environmental research and find solutions to global sustainability problems.

Read more about the “mighty mealworm” and its potential to impact the plastic pollution problem.