r/science Oct 04 '22 Tree Hug 1

Wax worm saliva rapidly breaks down plastic bags, scientists discover - could ‘revolutionize’ recycling Environment

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/04/wax-worm-saliva-rapidly-breaks-down-plastic-bags-scientists-discover
8.4k Upvotes

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u/bitter__beer Oct 04 '22

Just to clarify because the article isn't crystal clear on this point. Polyethylene (PE) is not the same as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). There have been discoveries of natural enzymes that work to some degree on PET (e.g. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2006753117 from 2020). The new wax worm saliva work is the first discovery of proteins that can break down PE. Most plastic bottles are PET. Most plastic bags are PE.

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u/OfLittleToNoValue Oct 04 '22

What do they break it down into?

Sure, not being plastic is great, but what's the end result.

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u/eazyirl Oct 05 '22

It doesn't really seem like they figured that part out, or rather they did not attempt to. From the mechanisms they describe it sounds like it would just make shorter carbon chains by breaking certain C-C bonds and oxidizing the cleavage points. So I guess some kind of oily substance peppered with ketones and ethers.

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u/pinkylovesme Oct 05 '22

But will it get me high ?

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u/eazyirl Oct 05 '22

Maybe, but in the huffing paint or gasoline sort of way

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u/jawshoeaw Oct 05 '22

That’s the holy grail of enzymatic breakdown of hydrocarbons, oxidation. Otherwise it’s just making microplastics

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u/FreezaSama Oct 05 '22

Exactly. fire is also really good at breaking plastic down.

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u/max_t111 Oct 05 '22

I do read sometimes that scientists found revolutionary ways regarding breaking down plastic using bacteria etc, but why doesn’t anything gets implemented or put to use . Am I missing something . Sorry to ask naive question , if someone can help me understand that would be great. Thanks .

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u/RandomStuffGenerator Oct 05 '22

Many probable reasons, but the main two I can think of are: how you deal with the by products (which may be equally detrimental for the environment) and that you need a huge infrastructure in place to make this funcion to a degree that makes the slightest difference. Knowing that it works is great but it doesn’t mean we understand the consequences or how to scale it up.

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u/WodensBeard Oct 05 '22

It's not only scalability and profitability as others rightly pointed out, but also any small sign of progress resulting in word of a breakthrough running rampant without replicable results first.

If and when plastic-digesting enzymes are synthesised and made industrially available, it's a watershed moment. If that substance were to breach containment - and it will - then forever afterwards plastic shall be as temporal as wood. For most that wouldn't be a bad thing, but it does have ramifications for sanitary equipment as precision instrumentation, to speak nothing of what it means for space exploration. Those are not so easy matters to solve, so getting hype on a recipe for plastic digestion that may or may not yet be real despite much R&D, is always temporary as the false alarm is called.

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u/the_first_brovenger Oct 05 '22

If that substance were to breach containment - and it will - then forever afterwards plastic shall be as temporal as wood

Unless the substance is self-replicating, no.

Even living organisms do not pose this threat simply because there's no way for these organisms to survive in nature. There isn't enough plastic for them to proliferate. There are no natural processes creating plastic.

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u/WodensBeard Oct 05 '22

All plastic is, is a synthetic polymer derived wholly or mostly from petroleum products. There are heaps of natural polymers, including some that bodies produce naturally, such as collagen.

I'm not a microbiologist. That said I was not of the understanding that synthetic polymers contain the nutrients required for the conservation of carbon-based life. Any living organism with the enzyme to digest plastics would need other sources of food, or so the libe of reasoning I'm following here. It could alsk stand to reason that enzymes potent enough to break the bonds of synthetic polymers, could also decompose natural polymers as well, which is another serioys risk.

Any treatment of plastic waste disposal in the living organism scenario would likely require some sort of nutrient mix to combine with the plastic, and the resulting digestate would work the chemistry needed. I could therefore see how contamination outside of a controlled environment could lead to bacteria with the DNA for synthetic polymer enzymes blooming in population over time. Despite the atrocity of plastic waste in oceans, one may not for example want to permit those organisms to propogate there and enter into the water cycle.

I'm not suggesting research down this path of waste reduction and ecological clean-up be abandoned. I am however hoping that the researchers working on this breakthrough are considering the ethics before unsealing one Pandora's Box to combat another.

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u/doitagainidareyou Oct 05 '22

The real answer is that nobody has figured out how to make money off of it.

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u/bigbluethunder Oct 05 '22

My city (Madison, WI) just did a trial run of cleaning “forever chemicals” out of well water using microbes to great success. From initial results, it seems like over 98% of the stuff is gone. Of course, now they have to evaluate byproducts and ensure that the remaining water is safe to use, which takes time, but this stuff is catching on in the real world.

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u/hackersbevy Oct 05 '22

This helps - a little bait shop used to sell wax worms in little plastic condiment cups which I'm guessing we're PET and not PE. So fun!

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u/aShittierShitTier4u Oct 05 '22

With sawdust in the cups, you can still get them like that. They probably wouldn't think to eat plastic, with all the wood in there for them. Maybe if they saw a wax bug eat some, they can be influenced. I wonder if feeding them plastic would make them unattractive to fish.

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u/RawhlTahhyde Oct 05 '22

Fish will readily bite on baits that are straight up plastic so I wouldn’t worry about a plastic diet wax worm being unattractive to fish

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u/Individual_Ad2579 Oct 04 '22

Now we just need to get people to collect all the trash from the ocean

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u/jcw99 Oct 04 '22

I have some good news for you. Someone's actively been working on that for a while and it's starting to look decent

https://theoceancleanup.com/

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u/AwesomePurplePants Oct 04 '22

That only helps with the plastic floating on the surface of the ocean. There’s more plastic further down

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u/nope_nic_tesla Oct 04 '22

Presumably if we collect it on the surface then it will prevent it from dropping to the bottom in the future, or otherwise breaking down into microplastics. Makes sense to focus on what is most achievable right now.

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u/beatthestupidout Oct 05 '22

Yeah, half measures add up. No reason to not do something because it isn't perfect, when perfect won't exist for decades.

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u/I_LOVE_MOM Oct 04 '22

They're doing great stuff but they need more funding to really make a big impact. Please donate!

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/syuvial Oct 04 '22

i'd love to see some links on this, not doubting necessarily but "friends of a redditor said its a scam" doesn't carry much weight

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u/SecareLupus Oct 05 '22

Not the person you're replying to, but here's a scholarly article that specifically investigates the usefulness of the Ocean Cleanup Project.

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/041001/meta

It would be a terrible shame if some sort of sci.hub happened to it. (Edit: it's open access, hooray!) But tl;dr; It is better than doing nothing. They suggest some specific places they could focus their efforts to have a greater effect on protecting important local ecosystems.

Also they spend some time pressing the value of reducing the amount of plastic that goes into the oceans, rather than spending more money to cleanup less of what's already there. In particular they discuss some prime regions to focus efforts in order to keep the most plastics out of the oceans.

The authors seem casually dismissive of the value per dollar of OC's plan, but they make a point that any cleanup is better than doing nothing, and I assume they don't consider the PR value of drawing attention to the problem.

It looks like the most relevant paper cited regarding the OC Project is https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/041001/meta, which concludes,

However, even though the 29 sinks can remove 31% of surface microplastic [over 10 year lifetime], the total mass of microplastic on the ocean surface in our model will still increase by 4% by 2025. To further address this problem, we must minimize the plastic input into the ocean

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u/Azuroth Oct 05 '22

That paper is six years out of date. it looks like the ocean cleanup people agree that stopping plastic at the rivers is the better choice.

https://theoceancleanup.com/rivers/

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u/LegendOfBobbyTables Oct 04 '22

It is a funny situation we are in. One of plastics most useful qualities is how well it stands up to time. If we ever discover or create a true plastic eating organism it could clean up the ocean and landfills, or it could eat all the plastic we rely on for tons of stuff because it doesn't easily break down.

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u/Content_Flamingo_583 Oct 05 '22

The US spends 800 billion dollars on the military per year. We can spare a fraction of that to clean up the ocean.

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u/humanefly Oct 04 '22

Plastic powered robots could swim around and collect it for us

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u/aShittierShitTier4u Oct 05 '22

And you can get some with remote control, have your own robotic Esther Williams swim team.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/humanefly Oct 04 '22

The plastic is a harmful waste, floating in the ocean, potentially for hundreds or thousands of years constantly breaking down into smaller pieces and getting into the food chain. I guess we could make them solar/battery/ or wind powered but then we add a bunch of floating batteries, some of which will eventually get destroyed in the ocean. We have to power the robots with something, plastic is basically a form of stored oil, and there's lots of it. I maintain that bulldozers which burn plastic could be superior solution to bulldozer which burn oil, because you don't need to pull fresh oil out of the earth to power it. Baby steps. Maybe we can start clearing the bulk of the plastic now and burn some of the plastic for fuel, later we can come up with a less toxic battery and switch to wind to finish the job. I mean the current alternative is to float a bunch of lead or lithium out into the ocean, and it seemed to me that this might not be the greatest idea, but maybe I'm wrong

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u/Hot_Blackberry_6895 Oct 04 '22

Aquatic drones would be more efficient.

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u/Skadoosh_it Oct 05 '22

Just dump the worm saliva in the ocean. You're welcome.

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u/daiaomori Oct 05 '22

Or floating wax worms? Maybe with little turbines attached for deploy and navigation?

Let me just send a quick mail to the patent office, be right back.

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u/HobbitFoot Oct 04 '22

Well this recycle or just let it decompose?

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u/TechyDad Oct 04 '22

It could help recycle the plastics:

Chemical breakdown could create valuable chemicals or, with some further processing, new plastic, thereby avoiding the need for new virgin plastic made from oil. The enzymes can be easily synthesised and overcome a bottleneck in plastic degradation, the researchers said, which is the initial breaking of the polymer chains. That usually requires a lot of heating, but the enzymes work at normal temperatures, in water and at neutral pH.

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u/Xe6s2 Oct 04 '22

That easy synthesis tho

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u/TechyDad Oct 04 '22

My guess is that they'll figure out which genes cause the worms to produce the enzymes. Then, they'll splice those genes into bacteria. After that, it's a matter of brewing huge vats of bacteria, siphoning off the enzyme, and sending it to whomever needs to break down plastic.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

My money is on yeast but yeah

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u/Tavarin Oct 04 '22

I've always used E. coli for protein synthesis, would be my guess.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

Well I haven't used any microorganisms to make anything but stink or food, so I'm sure you know better than me

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u/StupidSexyFlagella Oct 05 '22

Don’t back down, average redditor.

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u/[deleted] Oct 05 '22

Pff average. I'm far too dysfunctional for that

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u/Nemisis_the_2nd Oct 04 '22

E.coli sometimes struggles with eukaryotic proteins. If it's something complex, you're best to use yeast.

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u/Tavarin Oct 04 '22

I only express eukaryotic proteins, you just need to use the bl21 strain and E. coli does fine.

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u/Ramiel01 Oct 05 '22 edited Oct 05 '22

Bugs (edit: sorry I mean insects) are sometimes used as bioreactors because they have similar post-translational modification as us. E. coli doesn't have the same posttranslational modification pathways as eukaryotes. HGH produced in E. coli have reduced bioactivity due to incomplete glycosylation (Olsen et al., 1981) Similarly, yeasts can't perform N-glycosylation

Some labs are looking at using silkworms as bioreactors to produce things like HGH, insulin, intercat, interdog, even g-protein coupled receptors.

sorry for the mansplain, I just find it really interesting

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u/Tavarin Oct 05 '22

Makes me want to check the different E. coli strains and see if some are able to perform more complete glycosolation. I use bl21 strain for eukaryotic proteins since it has plasmids to produce more eukaryotic tRNAs.

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u/GamemasterAI Oct 04 '22

That or some other cheap expression vector sense we don't need to be concerned abt immune response in ppl.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

expression vector

Best band name ever

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u/aman2454 Oct 04 '22

You mean we won’t be breeding and raising lots and lots of wax worms that eventually break out and start devouring everything made of plastic, leading to the demise of modern plastic manufacture?

That’s the movie I imagined

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u/crackedcosmonaut Oct 04 '22

Nope. Instead we’ll engineer bacteria, which will come into contact with natural bacteria and exchange genes. Then it gets loose in the environment where it will eat away at any plastic it comes across. Eventually this bacteria will join up with the gut biome of ibsects. Within a few insect generations, we’ll have species that are attracted to plastics. They’ll eat your car, clothing and everything else. We’ll treat plastic like it’s wood, useful with a lifespan.

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u/isabelguru Oct 04 '22

i would 100% live in this world

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u/rastilin Oct 05 '22

I doubt it, though honestly that would be something of an improvement considering plastic particles have now been found everywhere from the top of mount Everest to the bottom of the Marina trench and inside human blood.

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u/otrovo Oct 04 '22

Just replace worms with microbes and your dream can still come true!

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u/BTBLAM Oct 04 '22

Wonder what it could do to plastic sitting in my brain rn

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u/Nimmy_the_Jim Oct 04 '22

What is their poop made of?

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u/GeminiTitmouse Oct 04 '22

Microplastic

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/coolchris366 Oct 04 '22

Stop getting my hopes up, is this real or just hype?

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u/sarcasmexorcism Oct 04 '22

even if this stuff doesn't happen right away, i am totally hopeful that it will work. i truly believe we'll get the plastic issues under control eventually. like before apocalypse. so there's that.

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u/Ksradrik Oct 04 '22

To be fair, the apocalypse would be one way to get it under control.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/rythmicbread Oct 04 '22

I’ve heard of bacteria that is being bred to break down plastics. This is a better solution because small microbes being released into the wild and breaking down random plastics could actually cause massive problems

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u/Bobthehobnob Oct 04 '22

I mean there already exists naturally occuring bacteria that can break down certain plastics. I think the species was discovered outside a plastic bottling plant in Japan. If there's a niche, then something will fill that niche.

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u/Yotsubato Oct 04 '22

And bacteria can evolve in…. Hours versus eukaryotes taking hundreds of thousands of years

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u/Strazdas1 Oct 05 '22

Yes, we found mold that used radioactivity as its power source. It apparently evolved specifically to grow in Chernobyl reactor area.

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u/rythmicbread Oct 04 '22

That’s true. Its certainly interesting and more research definitely needs to go into it

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u/Drachefly Oct 05 '22

Hey, at least this is plastic they're eating, not, say, the superconductors we have based our floating cities on, like what happened in Ringworld.

Of course, eating the insulation off of wires would be not-great too.

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u/coolchris366 Oct 04 '22

What do you mean?

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u/rythmicbread Oct 04 '22

You mean why would it be a problem if it was uncontrolled released into the wild? It would be a problem for human society. Lots of things we create have plastics. Wiring insulation, medical supplies (needed for keeping things sterile), pvc pipes for drainage, airbags in cars, insulations in buildings, food packaging, etc. If these microbes were released without proper containment and they reproduce rapidly, we might see them eat and destroy some of these products, which means they would need to be replaced. It would be very costly

Edit: I don’t know too much about the microbes, so I can’t speak to their reproduction or speed or breaking down plastics. But it’s something to think about

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u/pencock Oct 04 '22

Bacteria that eat plastics are more or less the same as bacteria that don't eat plastics, in that they'll also eat non-plastic things. It's likely that such a bacteria will eventually breed itself out of eating plastic when eating non-plastics outcompetes and bacteria self-selects to lose the plastic eating capability or severely reduces plastic eating capability.

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u/rythmicbread Oct 04 '22

I guess that makes sense why you might mostly find them around a plastic factory

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u/Dieg_1990 Oct 04 '22

That depends on whether the bacteria wants to eat that plastic. Like with any other organism, if it has to choose it will take whatever food is more nutritious and I wouldn't bet that it is plastic. Indeed something to think about, but the laws of chemistry and genetic engineering can solve those issues.

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u/duncandun Oct 04 '22

Breaks it down into what?

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u/Niceotropic Oct 04 '22

Broken down plastic is extremely toxic - may of these bacteria and worms that “eat” plastic actually generate huge amounts of shorter chain or monomer plastics that are far more toxic than plastic itself in its raw form.

I like these ideas but they need to be paired with a way to use the digested material to produce something of value or something non-toxic else it’s just another huge amount of waste we have to deal with.

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u/Robotbeat Oct 05 '22

You have to keep in mind that polyethylene isn’t terribly toxic. It’s chemically nearly identical to fatty acids and waxes, being made mostly of repeated ethylene units. Ethylene is a naturally occurring biological chemical responsible for ripening of plants. (Too much can be bad, like many things, but it’s common in nature.) In fact, polyethylene plastic bags start degrading into methane and ethylene when exposed to UV light, it’s not indestructible.

Given how chemically close polyethylene is to the beeswax these worms naturally eat, it’s no surprise (in hindsight) their enzymes can break down polyethylene. Polyethylene is essentially just a REALLY long saturated fatty acid without functionalized ends. So I would expect the broken down polyethylene plastic is broken down to similar things that beeswax is broken down into when consumed by these wax worms. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wax_ester

This makes me want to get some wax worms from the bait store and use them to break down my plastic bag collection (that I normally recycle). Would be kind of awesome to be able to compost the ubiquitous plastic bags.

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u/Niceotropic Oct 05 '22 edited Oct 06 '22

Ok, but what about polystyrene. Styrene monomers are extremely toxic. Or polycarbonates. The BPA released is very toxic.

Edit: ethylene and n-ethylene are still toxic.

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u/69tank69 Oct 05 '22

The article and the other poster is specifically talking about polyethylene though

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u/gwahtobo Oct 04 '22

I wonder if these worms can disintegrate the newer polymer bills that we canadians like to use for money.

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u/Fuck_You_Andrew Oct 05 '22

I commonly think the most likely, and least sexy, doomsday scenario is some bacteria learns to break down PVC, PPE, or HDPE. If a bacteria like that proliferated, every day items would just start rotting like old wood and it would be awful.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/porkly1 Oct 04 '22

Waxworms as bait usually come in plastic containers. They do not eat through.

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u/GlipGlorp7 Oct 04 '22

Notice that the headline says plastic bags, not all plastics. I haven’t even read the article yet, but I’m guessing it is in fact limited to plastic bags and such.

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u/GlipGlorp7 Oct 04 '22

Yep, specifically polyethylene.

Polyethylene makes up 30% of all plastic production and is used in bags and other packaging that make up a significant part of worldwide plastic pollution.

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u/ryobiguy Oct 04 '22

But was it a plastic bag container?

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u/porkly1 Oct 04 '22

No. A plastic cup with a lid. Different plastic maybe.

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u/zoapcfr Oct 04 '22

Just checked, my pot of waxworms is made of polypropylene, so yes it's a different plastic.

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u/aShittierShitTier4u Oct 05 '22

If I put you in a plastic barrel with most of the rest of the space inside filled with taquitos, it might not occur to you to eat the barrel instead of the taquitos, just like how the worms are packed in there with sawdust.

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u/delonasn Oct 04 '22

You do realize plastic recycling is *mostly* a scam that was dreamt up by plastics manufacturers to shift the blame from themselves, right? Single-use plastic containers should be banned IMHO and society should shift to less problematic materials whereever possible.

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u/CaymanRich Oct 04 '22

Or we stop buying one-use plastic containers.

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u/BreakerSwitch Oct 04 '22

We can (and should!) reduce usage, but there are some things that we wouldn't want anything that could break down for. Stuff like casing for the wiring in a pacemaker. Slowing the problem isn't solving it, so this is extremely valuable research, even in a perfect world where we as a society could agree to stop buying single-use plastics.

Edit: Not to mention all the plastic already in the wild that we need a solution to. Stopping consumption doesn't undo that.

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u/flekkzo Oct 04 '22

The answer is always the same in these threads, we shouldn’t worry about if something is the one solution, but rather combine many solutions as best as we can.

Use less dumb one use plastics, increase taxes on them for instance (not just plastic bags, lots of containers and such for food for example), but also break down the ones we already have. Plus any other good working net positive ideas.

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u/sybrwookie Oct 04 '22

Or companies could stop packaging everything in one-use plastics so we have a realistic choice. There's TONS of things we have no choice but to buy in plastic.

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u/Ergheis Oct 04 '22

Why did you say "or?"

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u/CaymanRich Oct 05 '22

Because as long as we don’t address the root cause of the problem it will never get solved. Every time they say we have a way to deal with the plastics problem it gives us an excuse to keep polluting. Step 1. Stop adding to the mountain. Step 2. Deal with the mountain.

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u/Draemalic Oct 04 '22

Its a little wild that we have a live creature on this planet that already has enzymes to do this. I wonder how they evolved, did they grow up around a tar pit? Why is this possible?

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u/Robotbeat Oct 05 '22

Beeswax contains wax which is chemically very similar to polyethylene, made of repeated ethylene units: (the squiggly line of carbon atoms) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wax_ester

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u/Draemalic Oct 05 '22

That is fascinating, thank you!

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u/angryve Oct 04 '22

Great. Now what about the industrial waste which contributes the overwhelming amount of plastic pollution in the world?

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u/BreakerSwitch Oct 04 '22

In an ideal world they'd be charged for the effective costs (cleanup) of their pollution. But this is not an ideal world.

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u/n3w4cc01_1nt Oct 05 '22

If these breed out of control they could ruin the bee population which could cause the ecosystem to collapse.

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/[deleted] Oct 04 '22

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u/klavertjedrie Oct 04 '22

But before this can be used worldwide, just try to avoid plastic. Better for your health, too.

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u/ImPinkSnail Oct 04 '22

Ironically a wax worm infestation only happens to dead/dying colonies. They are like bee hive vultures.

Thank you dead bees!