Email Print Share
January 16, 2020

Plastic Worms

Not only are mealworms able to consume various forms of plastic, new research from Stanford shows they can eat Styrofoam containing a common toxic chemical additive and still be safely used as protein-rich feedstock for other animals.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Junk food.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Scientists have known for a few years that mealworms have a palate for plastics. That Styrofoam may as well be a steak. Microorganisms in the worms' gut are happy too. They partially break down – or biodegrade -- the plastic. (Sound effect: burp)

So, what's the issue? In a word, Hexabromocyclododecane. Yikes! It's a common toxic additive to make Styrofoam more flame retardant. (Sound effect: flame burst) Millions of tons of Hexa -- let's just call it "HBCD," are added to Styrofoam and other plastics each year. Thing is, mealworms are sometimes used as a feed source for animals, so could HBCD be passed up the food chain?

Research from Stanford University says -- (Sound effect: ding, ding, ding –game show) nope. Their new study is the first to look at where harmful additives go once the worms ingest them.

The surprising take: essentially all the HBCD was excreted within two days. (Sound effect: cartoon mealworms chomping) Mealworms fed a steady diet of HBCD-laden Styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet and totally safe when fed to shrimp.

The researchers say other plastic additives may have different fates within plastic-degrading mealworms and that the real answers are biodegradable plastic replacement materials, and reduction of single-use plastic products.

And that opens-up (Sound effect: can pull tab) a whole new can of worms.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation.

Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.