American design studio develops Styrofoam substitute from plastic-eating mealworms

March 17, 2022
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Mary Lempres and Charlotte Bohning of American design studio, Doppelgänger have developed a Styrofoam substitute made from plastic-eating mealworms.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styrofoam, fill up to 30 per cent of landfill space worldwide. The toxic material is commonly used for insulation, packaging, and food containers such as egg cartons, cups, disposable trays and plates. It cannot be recycled after its end of life and just cracks into microplastics, polluting the planet permanently.

The EPS substitute, dubbed Chitofoam, is a bioplastic foam made from the exoskeleton of mealworms and can biodegrade in soil within two weeks.

According to the duo, the material is lightweight, shock-absorbent, water-resistant, can be moulded into different shapes and is suitable for food packaging like cups or packing peanuts.

“Growing edible mealworms is affordable, low-resource and space-efficient,” shares Bohning.

“An amazing fact about Styrofoam-eating mealworms is that they are still 100-per-cent edible by humans. Mealworm farming has been highlighted in recent years as an Environmentally-sustainable solution to malnutrition, particularly in developing rural economies.”

Chitofoam is derived from a biopolymer called chitin, which mealworms build their strong yet flexible exoskeleton.

The design duo said the bioplastic foam could be made from mealworms, insects, or crustaceans with chitin-rich shells such as beetles or lobsters.

“It started off quite simply as a tank with 1000 mealworms in which we put our waste foam, a material that is unfortunately abundant in design school,” said Böhning. “It has gradually grown to include tiered-drawers and many more worms.”

According to Böhning, mealworms can help divert EPS waste from landfills and the environment. They can safely and efficiently digest the foam with no ill effects on their health.

She added that they are in the process of pushing the Styrofoam substitute further by reimagining packaging in a more efficient and lattice-structured design for preserving and protecting products.

“Chitofoam anticipates the future global challenges of food scarcity/insecurity, improper waste management and the build-up of microplastics within our ecosystems,” she concluded.

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