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Styrofoam Composting Through Mealworms

 
pollinator
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I have started raising both mealworms and superworms.  These will be for animal feed, as well as attempted human food. There are some studies and articles showing how the bacteria inside the mealworms actually help them to digest styrofoam.  First off, this is one of the ONLY ways to degrade the styrofoam effectively.  Disposing of that waste will be useful in and of itself.  The true question is the health factor associated with this.  We know that we can't put the styrofoam into the garden (or shouldn't in large quantities), because it will not decompose.  But, what about the mealworms themselves.

The studies make it sound like the bacteria degrades the styrofoam, but does this render the mealworms inedible?  Would they now contain plastics as a byproduct?  Would they be still edible by humans, as well as safe for animal feed?  Would the most effective way be to feed some on a styrofoam only diet, and then send the frozen worms out for testing?  

I am asking these questions, because I am considering having a colony of these worm producing beetles that live on just my styrofoam.  I would have another colony for human and animal feed.  It worries me slightly that the plastics may build up in the systems of the beetles, but that also sounds illogical to me.  Surely plastic ingestion over long periods of time would kill an animal (unless it could digest the plastics).  What do you all think?  Would you trust the method to feed to your chickens?  Would you trust it to feed those chickens to your children?  Would testing of the worms be enough to satisfy the fear of plastic toxicities?
 
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I am torn.

On the one hand, I get really excited about bioremediation techniques, particularly remediation of the most persistent and most common petrochemical products like polystyrene.

On the other hand, the idea of feeding mealworms on styrofoam and then incorporating the end result into soil or feed makes me cringe. The only study I've seen on it is this one, and while it seems to show very strong evidence this this is possible, I have a few concerns.

1. Their evidence seems to suggest that most of the styrofoam breaks down. Most of it gets eaten, and most of it that is eaten is digested and depolymerized. Most is not all, though.
2. The study parameters showed that the mealworms grew fine on a diet of solely styrofoam- for one month. Whether something would bioaccumulated and reach toxic levels, we can't know.
3. It's one study. If there's more out there I can't seem to find it.

If the intent was, for example, to get a city grant to divert styrofoam to a mealworm farm, then sell the waste product to the city for landscaping mulch, I would be all for it. The plastic contamination would probably be less than what the wind and surface runoff deposit in plastic anyhow. As something intentionally incorporated into your food production system though, I would be very hesitant.

As far as testing, I would say test the fecula/detritus and the worms at 1 month, 2 months, 3 months and the same bin at the year and two year marks.
 
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The mealworms could also be a first step in a longer process. For instance you could feed these Styrofoam fed mealworms to fish that you then composted, which compost you could use to feed a green manure crop that could then be used as a feed for other mealworms or possibly red worms. In essence these toxic polymers are all hydrogen and carbon and in theory through a long series of focused biological activity these long chains of hydrogen and carbon can be broken back down into shorter chains that are not toxic.
I know that with lots of heavy metal bioremediation the end goal is to create a compost that is fed to non food trees. Often to trees that are destined to become lumber or furniture, the idea being to dilute and then sequester these heavy metals away from the broader environment.
This also makes me think about a notion that I've heard about farming hydrocarbons, think rubber from the rubber tree. supposedly there are other plants that produce potentially useful hydrocarbons. I wonder if using these mealworms that are fed on Styrofoam as an input in growing some kind of hydrocarbon producing plant? Would the extralong hydrocarbon chains in the mealworms lengthen the hydrocarbon chains produced by the plants? Could be interesting territory.
 
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This is a much needed conversation.

First off, I think that we often think of pollutants in an alarmed fashion, when all should be able to be figured out.  I keep thinking all of these items only exist because the natural resources to make them were already here.  It didn't appear out of thin air.  It seems we should be able to go in the opposite direction to break them down to their original components, which unfortunately, may not be available to the common man. . .Mealworms, however, seem to be a way to help.  We have seen that with any diet, however, that the answer seems to be variety and moderation.  While I wouldn't advocate feeding mealworms solely on styrofoam, what if this were only a part of their diet?  The rest of the styrofoam we could recycle directly to be used as insulation in our animal housing for example?
 
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If used in a multiple-step process, I would think any contamination that isn't broken down during a given step accumulates at the next level, so unless there's a stage that can digest any leftovers, then they still accumulate. But you would think that there would be a detectable level of residue during a study, and I would guess the study duration is short as the worm lifespan is also short? Also when the gut bacteria were applied directly to polystyrene they digested it slower than the worms did eating it. So perhaps the bacteria process it some, but parts still pass through the worms as waste. I would expect the worms themselves don't accumulate, but their waste products may/may not be 100% processed.
 
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I have no scientific (or other) evidence for my stance, but I can tell you that I raise large numbers of mealworms to feed other animals and no way I'm feeding mine styrofoam.  I have a special mix of food I feed mine on because I want to ensure that they have those nutrients available for the animals that eat them.  I look at it like this.  Suppose I could eat glass.  My system could break it down and use it with no problems.  I can't believe I would get any nutritional value from it, and I can't believe that styrofoam has any nutritional value either.  Even if they can break it down into completely, 100% inert ingredients, which it doesn't sound like to me, I don't think they can be getting any nutritional value from it.  At best, you are using mealworms to break down the styrofoam at their expense, and passing the mealworms without nutritional value to the animal down the food chain.
 
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It may be viable that bacteria in their stomach can digest styrofoam.... But how are you planning on getting them to eat it? Having raised mealworms in styrofoam containers, without them ever damaging it, I think asking whether it renders them inedible is getting ahead of ourselves here. I've seen this come up from time to time as in this thread here, but have yet to actually see anybody get them to eat it.
 
Todd Parr
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Guerric Kendall wrote:But how are you planning on getting them to eat it?



Put peanut butter on it?  It works for me :)

Best guess is don't give them anything else to eat.
 
stephen lowe
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Todd Parr wrote:I have no scientific (or other) evidence for my stance, but I can tell you that I raise large numbers of mealworms to feed other animals and no way I'm feeding mine styrofoam.  I have a special mix of food I feed mine on because I want to ensure that they have those nutrients available for the animals that eat them.  I look at it like this.  Suppose I could eat glass.  My system could break it down and use it with no problems.  I can't believe I would get any nutritional value from it, and I can't believe that styrofoam has any nutritional value either.  Even if they can break it down into completely, 100% inert ingredients, which it doesn't sound like to me, I don't think they can be getting any nutritional value from it.  At best, you are using mealworms to break down the styrofoam at their expense, and passing the mealworms without nutritional value to the animal down the food chain.



I think Todd that the difference is that you would be using these hypothetical mealworms as bioremediation, not strictly as a food source. Obviously, I don't think that a mealworm fed some or all Styrofoam (it's weird to me that Styrofoam gets auto capitalized fyi) would be a good food source. But I do wonder what other producers would think of mealworms as a possible link in the bioremediation chain and what does that mean for the opportunity to reduce the impact of extreme polymers
 
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As part of a bioremediation program, I think this is an idea right up there with using those beeswax grubs to eat plastic. I would, however, like to see it done for many generations of mealworms, and I would like tests expanded to a second stage, where the mealworms are eaten by something, and those somethings are tested to determine health and toxicity. I do agree that enough steps through natural biological processes will break down polystyrene to its component parts, but I wouldn't include them in the food chain. Woodlots for lumber or fibre, certainly, and perhaps some testing in that setting with fruit trees, cane berries, and shrubs, where you could take the fruit and have it tested.

-CK
 
William Wallace
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I too feel that this is an important conversation, but that we need to look at this logically.

I see much value in any degrading of plastics, especially styrofoam. There are many toxic chemicals to be discussed, but we are also undergoing a severe size and mass problem.  How much less area would our landfills encompass, with all of the styrofoam removed? The alternative to feeding these to superworms and mealworms, is throwing the styrofoam away.  That is a complete no-go.

We know that you do not want to use your worms that are feeder animal for your lizards and livestock to eat plastics.  It is questionable if those chemicals build up to a human toxic level, while the animals still live.  It's questioned if the chemicals build up at all.  The study that is referenced often, says that it's the bacteria in the gut of the mealworms that allows for digestion of styrofoam.  If this is the case, there is the possibility that no harmful chemicals are transmitted through the mealworms.  They might not be a vector or anything dangerous in this composing model.

Let's talk vectors, because we are still talking about disease here.  I'm not suggesting that humans eat mealworms that have digested styrofoam, but we surely should look at the effect of introducing them into our ecosystems.  An example that I would like to point to is the black soldier fly larvae (bsfl).  These can be used to compost human manure, and that they are not a vector for any type of disease.  I can't think of many people that would eat a bsfl that digested human feces a few weeks ago.  Even if it was flushed and cleaned, that is really taking risks.  We need some good studies, to show us how close we can get these superworms into our systems.

I would have multiple colonies of superworms.  Ones for my livestock, and my personal eating would be fet normal diets of bran veggies and fruit.  I would always keep those worms for composting.  If I had extra worms, I wouldn't feed them to livestock, but I would put them directly into the middle of a hot compost pile.
 
William Wallace
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Guerric Kendall wrote:... But how are you planning on getting them to eat it? Having raised mealworms in styrofoam containers, without them ever damaging it, I think asking whether it renders them inedible is getting ahead of ourselves here. I've seen this come up from time to time as in this thread here, but have yet to actually see anybody get them to eat it.



Guerric, I've done several tests of my own.  I have put each of my superworm into an individual soda or water bottle (each being about 20 ounces).  One of my superworms were put into a styrofoam cup with a plastic lid from fast food.  Some of the worms were put with styrofoam and oat meal, some with nothing, and some with just styrofoam.  Even with oats, they eat the styrofoam.  Worms ate much more when in a container with another worm.  The container with 2 worms visibily ate many times more styrofoam, and burrowed through the middle of it, where individuals just picked at the edges.  

The superworm that was in the cup is a different story.  I looked into that container, where he had food and everything.  The worm was nowhere to be found.  He had climbed up the edge of the cup, and chewed his way out when he reached the top.  It was vicious looking escape route too!

They seem to enjoy eating the styrofoam, and it's no problem at all getting them to eat it.  
 
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Todd Parr wrote:I have no scientific (or other) evidence for my stance, but I can tell you that I raise large numbers of mealworms to feed other animals and no way I'm feeding mine styrofoam.  I have a special mix of food I feed mine on because I want to ensure that they have those nutrients available for the animals that eat them.  I look at it like this.  Suppose I could eat glass.  My system could break it down and use it with no problems.  I can't believe I would get any nutritional value from it, and I can't believe that styrofoam has any nutritional value either.  Even if they can break it down into completely, 100% inert ingredients, which it doesn't sound like to me, I don't think they can be getting any nutritional value from it.  At best, you are using mealworms to break down the styrofoam at their expense, and passing the mealworms without nutritional value to the animal down the food chain.


I'm not presenting myself as an expert in this area, but I don't see how your logic could possibly be valid.  The digested styrofoam must have nutritional value to the mealworms.  Otherwise, how could an entire generation of mealworms fed only styrofoam have been raised to maturity by the researchers in question?  I understand that this experiment has been replicated several times.  Why are the baby mealworms in those studies not developing malnutrition if their sole food source has, as you proposed, no value?

I also don't understand the general sentiment repeated throughout this thread comparing the digestion of styrofoam by mealworms to the bioremediation of heavy metal toxins, suggesting that the styrofoam might accumulate through the food chain in a similar manner.  It might do that, I suppose, but then it also might not.  The whole problem with heavy metal toxicity is that you can't brake down the atomic metals into anything more basic; you can only dilute their concentration or bind them into larger molecules that might be more environmentally inert.  But styrofoam is a hydrocarbon.  If the mealworm's metabolism breaks it down into carbon and hydrogen, those elements are already non-toxic.  They don't require further remediation.

Surely I would like to see more in-depth research looking at multiple generations of styrofoam-fed mealworms to verify that they can fully develop into adult beetles, reproduce, grow through another generation of worms, reproduce again, etc., all on a styrofoam diet.  If there is some basic deficiency or residual poisoning of the mealworms, I'd think it should show up by examining enough generations of their species.  I would also like to see studies examining livestock (chickens or quail, for example) fed mealworms raised on styrofoam to verify that 1) the styro-worms provide adequate nutrition to the birds, similar to conventionally-raised mealworms; and 2) the resulting livestock birds didn't test positive for any accumulated toxicity or micro-plastics or anything like that.  I think results from those studies would tell us what we really need to know.

In the meantime, though, if mealworms thrive on this food source, as appears to be the case so far from studying single generations, I don't see why we should ignore that evidence.  It doesn't mean that we can't mix styrofoam with other food stocks, which surely can't help but be beneficial to the worms.  But I would want to see more in the way of evidence before I accepted the notion that styro-worms are inherently unsafe.
 
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