The Issue of Plastic Waste and ‘Waxworms’

A few months ago, a giant Cuvier beaked whale had washed ashore along the coastline in Norway. This 22 feet long deep sea whale was found dead on the beach. When the sea creature was cut open in order to investigate the cause of its death, an astounding 30 plastic bags were found in its stomach. The Cuvier beaked whale is generally found in the cold climatic waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Such areas are  sparsely populated. Despite this, 30 plastic bags had made way into the whale’s stomach.

This incident is a clear indication of the extent of plastic pollution in the sea. It is  not  just the seas, but the entire world is bewildered by the question of how to tackle the plastic waste which is  scattered all over. In India too, cattle roaming around tend to scavenge food from the roadside garbage and fall prey to diseases caused by accidental ingestion of plastic. Time and again, concern has been expressed about this.

According to a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 5.25 trillion plastic pieces are currently in the seas. Of this only 2,69,000 pieces are seen floating on the sea surface; while a  large part of this waste then washes ashore. The rest of the plastic waste has sunk to the bottom of the sea. Every year, 1,27,00,000 kilogrammes of plastic waste mixes in the seas. In addition to this, cities produce their own share of plastic waste. India, alone, produces 56,00,000 tons of plastic waste every year. 60 major cities in the country produce 15,342 tons of plastic waste every year. A large share of this waste is gotten rid of by disposing it in rivers, drains and the sea. Polythene bags comprise a major portion  of this plastic waste. 

Only 60% of this waste gets recycled. The remaining waste is just scattered around. The researchers however, claim to have found an antidote to this plastic menace, the antidote being the ‘Honeyworm Caterpillar’. The Honeyworm Caterpillar is also known as the ‘Waxworm’. Its scientific name is ‘Galleria Mellonella’.

This insect consumes the wax found in honeycombs. Therefore it is named the ‘Honeyworm Caterpillar’ and the ‘Waxworm Caterpillar’. Its worms could be troublesome before undergoing metamorphosis into insects. The Honeyworm Caterpillar is the only known insect of the Galleria Mellonella genus, which is found almost everywhere in the world.

It has been found that along with wax, this insect can also consume plastic. This was an accidental discovery. Federica Bertocchini, a scientist with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), had kept some Wax Worms in a plastic bag in her room in order to conduct research on them. After tying up this plastic bag containing worms, she locked up her room as she left to run errands. Upon returning, she found Wax Worms crawling all over her room. Hundreds of Waxworms had eaten through the plastic bag and crawled out of those holes.

When Federica Bertocchini and her colleagues conducted further research on these ‘Waxworms’, they found that these ‘Waxworms’ have strong digestion abilities and that their stomach enzymes can breakdown even something as tough as plastic. ‘Waxworms’, through a process of chemical breakdown, are able to convert the ingested plastic into ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is used as anti-freeze or as a coolant. It has a process which produces the substance required to prevent water from freezing into ice.

On an average, 100 ‘Honeyworm Caterpillars’ can consume 92 milligrams of plastic in twelve hours. For a worm this tiny, its speed of consuming plastic is very fast. Researchers claim that if large scale rearing of these worms is undertaken, it can help in decomposing plastic waste. Further research is being conducted in this field.

Last year, the Supreme Court had  made a strong statement on a report regarding plastic waste. The Supreme Court Bench said that India has been sitting on a plastic time bomb. Given the figures, this seems to be true. If timely steps are not taken to stop plastic waste pollution, a catastrophe awaits. Not just India, but the entire world faces the menace of plastic pollution. At such a time,the research on ‘Waxworms’, can prove  significant.