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Plastic, compost, and the common mealworm – Malmö University researchers investigate

2016-07-19

Design researchers at Malmö University are exploring our future with plastic and the proposal that the common mealworm could be environmental saviours.

Considerable threat to the environment

It is thought that one of the biggest environmental problems of our time is the volume of plastic found everywhere in nature. If we are to create a sustainable environment it is vitally important to find ways in which we can degrade plastic.

Åsa Ståhl och Kristina Lindström

Åsa Ståhl och Kristina Lindström

Last autumn a scientific article was published in which it was reported that mealworms – normally regarded as vermin if found in the home – can degrade extruded polystyrene. It has been established that the worms do not die to a greater extent than if they ate other things and that they can still reproduce.

Normally plastic is difficult to recycle as it breaks down into small particles known as microplastics. But mealworms have proved that they are up to the challenge. 

"A normal mealworm can break down extruded polystyrene and then excrete a clean product that can become a new soil component," said Åsa Ståhl. 

Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström are both post-docs in design at the Institute of Design at Umeå University and they are both involved in research at Malmö University. Their aim is to examine how this discovery could be utilised and as part of the process they have created a prototype kit for composting plastic in the home.

"The kit comprises a glass jar containing mealworms and pieces of extruded polystyrene," explained Åsa Ståhl. 

Participants impressed by the mealworms

The researchers distributed the kits to participants around the Öresund Region. The participants' reaction to having mealworms in the kitchen differed considerably.

"Some regarded the mealworms almost as pets whilst others remained firmly of the opinion that they were vermin and they found it difficult to see them in a domestic setting. Others were struck by the worms' unremitting efforts, albeit slow, to break down the plastic," said Kristina Lindström          

As part of the Hybrid Matters research project, they are investigating plastic rocks, known as plastiglomerates. These are a new geological unit – a combination of rock and plastic – and were first discovered in Hawaii.

"We have chosen to investigate two examples of unintentional and perhaps slightly unexpected 'encounters' between plastic and other materials and species and which have aroused a great deal of interest, concern and hope," said Åsa Ståhl.

Considering the future

"We are curious about what these examples tell us with regard to whether we should or can continue to live with or without plastic in the future. These hybrid materials could be an asset in new design and offer potential for species to coexist," said Kristina Lindström. 

When plastic was first manufactured and used it brought with it a vision that human beings could free themselves from the limitations of nature. At that time plastic was used mainly as a light, cheap replacement for other materials. Today plastic is used for a whole range of products and not just as a replacement but also as a material that makes possible things that were previously inconceivable. We are in many ways dependent on plastic while at the same time it remains a source of concern. In the oceans, islands of plastic have appeared and recently a report was published revealing traces of plastic in sea salt.

Text: Adrian Grist

Last updated by Amanda Malmquist