(Editor's Note: This piece originally was pubished as the Editor's Note in the June 2017 issue of Flexible Packaging.)
It’s always been my goal in writing these editorials to not just preview the issue you’re flipping through (that’s what the table of contents is for, after all), but to provide information on fun, perhaps quirky news that relates to flexible packaging. This one relates to the end-of-life recyclability challenges that the industry is working to resolve. One possible complementary solution was recently detailed in Science Magazine: caterpillars.
According to researchers, a caterpillar that’s been bred for commercial fishing purposes has demonstrated the ability to biodegrade polyethylene. In a controlled experiment, about 100 of these insects were placed in a plastic bag. After 40 minutes, the caterpillars removed about 92 milligrams of plastic mass from it. While this may not seem like a lot, researchers say that the degradation rate is extremely fast compared to alternative methods, such as bacteria, that have been found to biodegrade certain plastics.
“The caterpillars are not just eating the plastic without modifying its chemical makeup. We showed that the polymer chains in polyethylene plastic are actually broken by the wax worms,” Paolo Bombelli, a partner on the project and researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, explained to Science Magazine. “The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut. The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible.”
There’s certainly a lot more detail to this discovery than what we can list in this space, so I’d encourage you to head on over to Science Magazine to read the entire report for yourself. Who knows, in the not too distant future, these caterpillars could become a key ally in the ongoing plastic recyclability efforts.