Tiny mealworms may hold part of the solution to our giant plastics problem. Not only are they able to consume various forms of plastic, as previous Stanford research has shown, they can eat Styrofoam containing a common toxic chemical additive and still be safely used as protein-rich feedstock for other animals, according to a new Stanford study published in Environmental Science & Technology.

The study is the first to look at where chemicals in plastic end up after being broken down in a natural system – a yellow mealworm’s gut, in this case. It serves as a proof of concept for deriving value from plastic waste.

“This is definitely not what we expected to see,” said study lead author Anja Malawi Brandon, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “It’s amazing that mealworms can eat a chemical additive without it building up in their body over time.”

In earlier work, Stanford researchers and collaborators at other institutions revealed that mealworms, which are easy to cultivate and widely used as a food for animals ranging from chickens and snakes to fish and shrimp, can subsist on a diet of various types of plastic. They found that microorganisms in the worms’ guts biodegrade the plastic in the process – a surprising and hopeful finding. However, concern remained about whether it was safe to use the plastic-eating mealworms as feed for other animals given the possibility that harmful chemicals in plastic additives might accumulate in the worms over time.

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