Sorry, guys, I'm going to get a little squirmy here.
Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that there is a huge problem with plastic bags in the world. I mean, just drive down the highway, and you can see shopping sacks hanging from trees, blowing like wind socks. They are all over the sides of the streets and they fill up garbage dumps. They suffocate wildlife, get eaten by sea life, and, let's face it, are a nightmare for the planet.
In my own city, the recycling company won't accept them in the weekly recycling bin. In order for me to recycle them, I have to bring them back to the store to put in their special bin. I go through this effort, but I know not everyone does. And sure, we can use the bags to line the bathroom trash can, but that's one bag. I know that if I don't bring my reusable bags for a shopping trip, I easily get around 7 or 8 bags for a weekly grocery trip. Plus all the bags for produce.
Federica Bertocchini didn't mean to make a discovery when she put a bunch of waxworms into a bag. The developmental biologist from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain was just trying to get them out of her empty beehives, which were infested with them. Waxworms, the larvae of the greater wax moth, thrive on beeswax; hence their name. But when she was done evicting the caterpillars from the hives, Bertocchini turned to find that the caterpillars had quickly eaten holes right through the plastic bag she had put them in.
Upon further research and observation, researchers found that the caterpillars actually converted the polyethylene bags into ethylene glycol, which can then be made into useful stuff like antifreeze for your car, and polyester fiber, and more.
Recycling plastic bags at a plant is one option, but recycling often produces its own pollution and waste that is as bad for the environment as the original thing. Using caterpillars to do some of the job might be a greener solution, and can help deal with the waste of 80 tons of polyethylene that's produced per year. However, is this a surefire solution?
Well, no. Immediately, what caught my attention is that these caterpillars LOVE beeswax. What happens so often when we introduce a species to do a job? Well...look at all the yellow, highly invasive flowers all over the highways down south in the US--those are invasive soy plants. Look at the rabbits in Australia, and kudzu in the US, and many other species that don't belong in a certain place, but have become invasive and start to choke the life out of native species. If we introduce these caterpillars, even in what we think is a closed system, in the numbers necessary to make a dent in plastic waste, I think there is a real concern that beekeepers might be faced with even more challenges than they already are with pesticides and climate changes. Now there will be a caterpillar that will invade their hives and eat beeswax in even greater numbers than they already do. Recycling plants might do their best to keep the caterpillars (and the moths they grow into) contained, but nature always finds a way, and some are sure to escape and reproduce. There may well be a solution to this, and perhaps the caterpillars now only go after empty hives to avoid the bees, but in great numbers, dynamics of a system change. There's no way we can accurately predict exactly what the impact of introducing caterpillars to an environment will be. But we can make educated guesses. And history has hopefully taught us some lessons so scientists and others can go into this with their eyes open, knowing some of the implications.
For now though, let's look at the positive side of things. Having a natural way to get rid of plastic bags is a huge step. Now, we just have to eliminate the usage of these bags in lieu of reusable or quickly compostable bags in order to keep wildlife and our planet happy.
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. She studied both physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.