Sustainable Energy

Worms: They just might save the planet

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
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Plastic is a crucial part of modern life but for environmentalists and governments around the world, it is becoming a major headache.

Environmentally, the impact of plastic is nothing short of disastrous: the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that roughly 80 percent, "of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic."

This is harming marine life, the NRDC says, with animals eating plastic and dying as a result of "choking, intestinal blockage and starvation."

Things aren't much better on dry land. The European Commission says that almost 50 percent of plastic waste in the European Union is landfilled.

Could worms – specifically mealworms – be part of the solution to our plastic problem? Engineers at Stanford University, together with researchers from China, think they may have found the answer.

Two studies – published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology – found that the mealworm is able to live off a diet of Styrofoam and other types of polystyrene, with microorganisms found in their guts helping to biodegrade the plastic.

According to a news release from Stanford, the studies are "the first to provide detailed evidence of bacterial degradation of plastic in an animal's gut."

"The 'plastic problem' is one of the major environmental issues in the world," Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, told CNBC in a phone interview. Wu co-authored the two studies on the subject.

In a news release from Stanford, Wu also said that, "Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem."

The potential of the research being conducted is considerable, with billions of plastic cups thrown away each year.

"I think eventually, you could – (and) it may not be us – people could develop some technical approaches to speed up the clean-up," Wu told CNBC.