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The battle against plastic pollution may be boosted from an unlikely source – hungry caterpillars.

In a recent study, larva of the greater wax moth Galleria mellonella were found capable of consuming and metabolising polyethylene – the most common form of plastic, used to everything from shopping bags to food wrappers and packaging – at “unprecedented rates”.

Polyethylene has a similar make-up to honeycomb, the natural foodstuff of the wax worm, which they acquire through the invasion of bee hives.

As part of the research – conducted by Brandon University in Canada published yesterday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B – 60 caterpillars were fed on a diet of sheeting made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and managed to chomp their way through 30 cm2 in just a week. Researchers are yet to work out why the caterpillars were able to do this.

Speaking to The Times, study lead Dr. Christophe LeMoine said: “We think it is quite phenomenal that these insects are able to survive for weeks on a diet made entirely of plastic.”

While these findings will no doubt make encouraging reading for plastic campaigners, they also present some obstacles. One of which is the question of what could be done with the by-product excreted by the worms following their plastic feasting, ethylene glycol – a toxic organic compound.

Production of plastic rose to 348 million tonnes worldwide in 2017 – the majority of which was single-use. As of April, single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds will be banned in the UK.


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