Sure enough, Styrofoam seems to be great when it comes to warming your coffee in that cheap cup. And you can't help but appreciate those little balls of packaging that keep your fragile objects protected when transported.
But this lightweight, durable material, also called polystyrene foam or expanded polystyrene, has a high environmental cost.
Polystyrene foam does not easily disintegrate in landfills. Americans throw away at least 2.5 billion Styrofoam cups a year, so much garbage will still circulate for millennia, contaminating water systems and harming animals.
Now for the good news: scientists at Beihang University in Beijing and Stanford University in California have discovered clues hidden in the viscera of larvae, also known as mealworm, to reduce the problem of plastic foam. .
"There is a possibility that really important research is emerging from bizarre places," Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervised the researchers at Stanford, said in a statement.
"Sometimes science surprises us. It's a shock."
The researchers found that powerful bacteria live in the gut's viscera and allow them to feed on polystyrene foam - known commercially as Styrofoam - by disintegrating the plastic into organic waste.
Additional studies on these bacteria could help scientists develop synthetic enzymes capable of disintegrating polystyrene foam.
The research was published September 21 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. "The discovery of the disintegration of plastic by the mealworm is revolutionary because styrofoam has been considered non-biodegradable," said researcher Wei-Min Wu by email.
"Understanding the mechanism of plastic disintegration by the mealworm will lead us to new approaches to solving the problem of plastic pollution," said Wu, a Stanford senior researcher and engineer who participated in the study.
In the survey, one hundred larvae were fed 34 to 39 milligrams of Styrofoam for one month every day from birth.
Within 24 hours of eating, the creepy crawlies converted about half of the plastic foam to carbon dioxide and excreted the remainder as waste that apparently could be safely used as crop fertilizer.
Don't worry about the squalls. According to Wu, the plastic-eating creatures remained as healthy as any other group of controlled larvae that had received a normal diet.
The existence of these bacteria was already known - thanks to Taiwanese high school student Tseng I-ching, who discovered them in 2009 - but what they could do inside the larvae was not yet known, according to an online newspaper report. The Christian Science Monitor.
Scientists were very excited about the new research. As Wu told CNN: "This is one of the biggest discoveries in environmental science in the last ten years."