'Superworms' may hold the key to world's trash crisisA new study from Australia shows that larvae of the darkling beetle can eat polystyrene — the material behind plastic foam.

How 'superworms' could help solve the trash crisis

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have the sound of bugs - bugs that may be helping the planet by eating Styrofoam.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGS CHEWING STYROFOAM)

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Scientists think these beetles could help people by eating their way out of some of the trash crisis. Australian researcher Chris Rinke studies them.

CHRIS RINKE: They are called superworms. But if you look very close, you can see they actually have six legs. They are actually the larvae of the darkling beetle.

INSKEEP: And who wouldn't want to look very closely? He and his colleagues have been feeding these bugs nothing but polystyrene. That's the scientific name for Styrofoam.

RINKE: They're really eating machines. Their main goal is to gain as much weight as they can to then become a pupa and a beetle. So they're not very picky eaters.

FADEL: The scientists are trying to figure out how the larvae break down the plastic waste.

RINKE: We could, you know, have, like, gigantic worm farms with millions of worms and feed them polystyrene. But what scales way better and is, I would say, also cheaper is to focus on the enzymes.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the insects produce enzymes that break things down - enzymes that, in turn, could one day be reproduced in a lab.

RINKE: Polystyrene waste, which is a rather low-value product - it goes through this biological degradation using the enzymes. And then you can feed it to microbes to then produce something like bioplastic, which is actually a higher-value product.

FADEL: Rinke hopes this work will encourage people to recycle more. His journey into insects and plastic research began during a sailing trip with his wife.

RINKE: We stopped at a beautiful uninhabited island in French Polynesia, and we stayed there for a week. It was paradise. But if you look very carefully, you can see - you're on a tropical island, somewhere thousands of miles away from any continent, and there is plastic debris. And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to look into that.

FADEL: Now he's looking for answers to a big problem inside the guts of a tiny bug.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "ELECTRIC WORM")

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