When people think of bugs, they think of creepy-crawly pests that should be left to an exterminator. That may be true for cockroaches and other destructive insects. But a farmer from Singapore is actually using a type of insect to eliminate mass amounts of food waste.
Chua Kai-Ning and her partner Phua Jun Wei are revolutionizing how people think of the black fly larvae. The two spend their days studying the bug and analyzing new ways humans can benefit from their bi-product. In 2017, the pair founded Insectta – a farm for producing the insects.
While Singapore is experiencing a food-waste crisis, with almost 700,000 pounds of food waste recorded in 2020, the bug scientists are utilizing the larva to battle the problem. They feed the bugs up to eight tons of food waste in just one month, CNN reports.
“The concept behind Insectta is that nothing goes to waste,” said Chua. “Waste can be reimagined as a resource if we change how we think about our production methods, and how we deal with waste.”
After the maggots are fed, Kai-Ning then flash-dried them. They are bagged and turned into animal feed, which is used as a fertilizer.
Biomaterials in Insects
Though it seems unusual to work with the insects in this way, it’s actually incredibly lucrative and helpful. Once the maggots grow to adulthood, they leave behind an exoskeleton. This leftover body part, Kai-Ning discovered, is a very useful biomaterial.
“…we realized that a lot of precious biomaterials that already have market value can be extracted from these flies,” she said.
So what happens after the scientists extract these biomaterials? The short answer is that they’re studying them as a natural agent in cosmetics. The material chitosan, an antimicrobial substance with antioxidant properties, is the substance Kai-Ming is after.
This material is also useful because it takes much fewer chemicals to process into cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.
Chemical engineer and biologist Susanne Zibek explains that chitosan could replace synthetic thickening materials in these products.
“There’s a change in consumer awareness, and people want sustainable products,” she added. “We can support that by substituting synthetic products with chitosan.”
Further, the ability to make products more sustainable is the end goal. It’ll help reduce chemical use. It will also be reusable. While scientists are still figuring out the technology to do this, they estimate that by 2030 the industry could be worth $3.4 billion.
Kai-Ming says that the only thing left to do is convince people that maggots and insects aren’t totally creepy.
“When people think of maggots, the first thing they think is that they’re gross and harmful to people,” she said. “By putting the benefits first, we can transform people’s ‘gross factor.'”