worm on plastic
César Hernández/CSIC

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Could this caterpillar help solve the world’s plastic bag problem?

A developmental biologist and amateur beekeeper has come up with a new way to get rid of used plastic bags: Make waxworms eat them. The larvae of the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella), these caterpillars thrive on beeswax. While cleaning out empty hive boxes that were infested with these caterpillars, Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain put them in a plastic grocery bag. To her surprise the waxworms quickly ate their way out, leaving the bag riddled with holes. It turns out the caterpillars can break down the bag's polyethylene into ethylene glycol, which can be readily converted into useful substances such as antifreeze, the team reports today in Current Biology. Polyethylene is very hard to break down, making the 80 million tons produced a year a big recycling challenge. Only recently have researchers begun to make progress doing so, and this caterpillar may be another solution. 

Correction, 25 April, 1:43 p.m.: The original version of this article stated that humans create 80 tons of polyethylene a year. We have corrected the story to reflect the fact that humans produce 80 million tons a year.