Humans produced approximately 21 million tons of polystyrene products in 2013 (Yang et. al, 2015b). Plastics made from polystyrene are cheap, durable and one time use, as a result plastics end up in landfills (Yang et. al, 2015a). Due to the stable molecular structure and low degradability, plastic products tend to be hard to breakdown(Yang et. al, 2015b). In the environment these characteristics cause problems.
Plastics are a major source of pollution in the oceans, creating large islands of debris in the oceanic gyres. Due to the vast nature of the ocean many of the issues regarding plastic pollution go unseen in our day to day lives. For example plastics can block oxygen exchange in the water column causing the benthic layer of the ocean to become anoxic, this in turn leads to a loss of biodiversity (Derrick, 2002). Misidentifying plastics as prey results in wildlife such as manatees, whales and dolphins, to slowly starve to death (Derrick, 2002). The ability of the plastics to absorb chemicals such as PCB’s causes secondary threats such as disruption in hormone function and reproductive issues (Derrick, 2002).
In 2015, scientists discovered mealworms had the ability to convert polystyrene to carbon (Yang et. al, 2015a). Mealworms breakdown polystyrene “ by chewing, ingesting,[and] mixing”, once the polystyrene comes into contact with the gut bacteria, Exiguobacterium sp. strain YT2, it is converted into carbon(Yang et. al, 2015a; Yang et. al, 2015b)
Although mealworms were able to breakdown clean polystyrene products, this leaves the question can polystyrene products treated with chemicals still be degraded by these creatures?(Yang et. al, 2015a). More research needs to be done in order to fundamentally answer this question and many others.
Derrick, J. G. B.(2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44, 842-852.
Yang, Y., Yang, J., Wu, W., Zhoa, J., Song, Y., Gao, L., Yang, R., Jiang, L.(2015a). Biodegradation and mineralization of polystyrene by plastic-eating mealworms: part 1. Chemical and physical characterization and isotopic tests. Environmental Science and Technology, 49, 12080-12086. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b02661
Yang, Y., Yang, J., Wu, W., Zhoa, J., Song, Y., Gao, L., Yang, R., Jiang, L.(2015b). Biodegradation and mineralization of polystyrene by plastic-eating mealworms: part 2. Role of gut microorganisms. Environmental Science and Technology, 49,12087- 12093. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b02663
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