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Mealworms Eating Styrofoam?

Posts: 1199
Location: Longbranch, WA
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Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, discovered the larvae can live on polystyrene.  

To answer one or two of the questions above. So not all plastic foam is the same. results with different packaging will probably vary.
Posts: 206
Location: South Central Kansas
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I absolutely love this idea. Explorations of the restorative power of nature is one of my primary driving forces in permaculture, and I'm super thankful for Permies for that.

Semi-related: I had dinner with a friend in R&D last night who is developing biodegradable packaging from unfruiting mycelium. His method involves 3D-printing a custom-shaped mold and letting the mycelium grow to fill the mold. He then bakes the mycelium to harden it, and you have a form-fitting package that can be composted, or even crumbled and used as mulch.

I can imagine a mycelium styrofoam substitute being a super-nommy snack for mealworms.
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Location: DFW
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Interesting thread.

Have any of you put Styrofoam in your mealworm bin?
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I just joined the site in part because I found this discussion. I've been interested in a more responsible way to dispose of old foam.  I know this is an old thread but I have been researching the topic. You folks should know that I found a 2019 article that tells us about the health of the worms over time, and about where at least one nasty substance in the foam goes when they digest it.  The mealworms seem to be fine after living on the stuff and the researchers claim the worms are safe to use as feed.

I think they'd need a multi-generation genetic / genomic assay for about 20 generations to be able to state that firmly, but it is still early days.  Then again I know people who reliably react to tiny amounts of substances.

Here is a quote from the linked article :

What chemical did they track

Brandon, Wu and their colleagues looked at Styrofoam or polystyrene, a common plastic typically used for packaging and insulation, that is costly to recycle because of its low density and bulkiness. It contained a flame retardant called hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD, that is commonly added to polystyrene. The additive is one of many used to improve plastics' manufacturing properties or decrease flammability. In 2015 alone, nearly 25 million metric tons of these chemicals were added to plastics, according to various studies. Some, such as HBCD, can have significant health and environmental impacts, ranging from endocrine disruption to neurotoxicity. Because of this, the European Union plans to ban HBCD, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating its risk.

And what did they find out

Mealworms in the experiment excreted about half of the polystyrene they consumed as tiny, partially degraded fragments and the other half as carbon dioxide. With it, they excreted the HBCD—about 90 percent within 24 hours of consumption and essentially all of it after 48 hours. Mealworms fed a steady diet of HBCD-laden polystyrene were as healthy as those eating a normal diet. The same was true of shrimp fed a steady diet of the HBCD-ingesting mealworms and their counterparts on a normal diet. The plastic in the mealworms' guts likely played an important role in concentrating and removing the HBCD.

The researchers acknowledge that mealworm-excreted HBCD still poses a hazard

I don't think any of us want to concentrate every questionable substance in the foam into the mealworm frass that we would like to use on our gardens.


Posts: 2007
Location: Grand Valley of Colorado's Western Slope
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Wow, Ken, thanks for tracking that down!

I was suspicious that though the styrofoam "disappeared" it was still intact in tinier pieces, which the study you posted seemed to confirm.  

One thing a person with time and inclination could do would be to take the post meal worm styrofoam, and train a fungus to break it down.  That might be a true transformation of the styrofoam into something better suited to be in the world... maybe even cut out the mealworm middleman.!  Fungi are in the business of making enzymes that break down substances into food sources.

Maybe we could get Paul Stamets on that!
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I'm coming to this conversation a little late.  But hey, perennial discussion, right?

My mom has had the same group of mealworms propagating and consuming styrofoam since March 2015.  It's currently Setember, 2020, and the bugs are still doing their thing.

I've created a new thread (wiki-able, I believe) with some pictures we've taken over the years:


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