The Very Hungry, World-Saving Caterpillar

The Spark

26th May 2017

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In Eric Carle’s much loved classic, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, the larval hero ate its way through a veritable shopping bag’s worth of food including apples, oranges, sausages and chocolate cake. It didn’t eat the plastic bag, though. Now a scientist has discovered a caterpillar that does munch plastic, and it might hold the key to reversing the environmental time bomb of plastic waste.

Federica Bertocchini at the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria was picking honeycomb moth caterpillars out of a beehive and placing the beeswax-eating pests in a plastic bag for disposal. However the voracious insects ate the plastic itself to break free. Bertocchini’s team wants to use the caterpillars’ enzymes to break down the polyethylene used to make plastic bags.

Others are working to innovate in this area, too. BioCellection, a San Jose, California-based start-up, aims to launch a pilot plastic waste-processing plant by 2020. This time, hungry caterpillars aren’t involved. Instead, the company will chemically treat plastics to make them easier for bioengineered bacteria to digest.

These innovations come at a critical time. Our addiction to plastics, combined with a reticence to recycle, means the polymeric pollutants are already asphyxiating the planet’s geology. “All the plastics that have ever been made are already enough to wrap the whole world in plastic film,” palaeobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester, UK, recently told a conference in Berlin, Germany. In 2013, of the 56 million tonnes of PET manufactured – about a quarter of all plastics produced that year – only 2.2 million tonnes were recycled.

Even if we can start to reverse the devastation from our man-made polymer problem, we still need packaging alternatives, and biodegradable plastic won’t cut it. Step in Royal College of Art student Felix Pottinger. He has created a sustainable alternative to plastic food packaging using washed-up seagrass, and claims the material is not only completely biodegradable but has antibacterial properties that help keep dry food fresh.

Another product design student, Ari Jonsson, combined red algae powder with water to create a biodegradable bottle. After reading about the amount of waste plastic produced every day, the budding designer felt an “urgent” need to develop a replacement material.

While it doesn’t seem trendy to be eco-friendly, it’s in the DNA of premium (and fashionable) outdoor apparel maker, Patagonia. It has a long track record of trying to reduce the impact of plastic waste, highlighted in its Footprint Chronicles. Since it began to make recycled polyester from plastic bottles in 1993, it has continued to be a rare combination of manufacturer and eco-activist. Brands interested in following the innovation lead of the likes of Patagonia and those design students should feel encouraged that ethics can equate to higher premiums. If it’s good for the planet, the brand and the bottom line, it’s surely a win-win.


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