How One Penn Graduate is Combining Sustainability with Styrofoam

styrofoam decomposition
June 17, 2021

If you encountered recent Weitzman School of Design MFA graduate Narendra Haynes at the start of his painting career and told him that his portfolio would eventually feature sculptures made from live mealworms munching on styrofoam, he would have been lost, like most of us after hearing about the unlikely insect-pollutant combination.

Styrofoam, a material commonly used for insulation and packaging, contains polystyrene, a synthetic polymer that can take between 500 to 1 million years to decompose. Styrofoam is littered more than any other waste product, filling up to 30% of landfills globally, and its production process is a key contributor to air pollution. Due to its non-biodegradable nature, environmentalists and scientists have been advocating for more eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam, but what is to be done about the styrene materials already in our environment?

Haynes was first introduced to the intersection of living species and art through a biological design class he took during his first year at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design. The concept of studying living processes and systems to solve contemporary design problems was of particular interest to Haynes, who eventually, as part of his research for the class, stumbled across mealworms as a potential solution to our current styrofoam problem. He soon learned about a recent Stanford and Beihang University discovery that mealworms can eat and decompose styrofoam over several digestive cycles, transforming the bulky material into a fine gray particulate. This upcoming July, his work will be featured among other artists at an installment of Rot Talks, a Poetry Project event themed about processing toxins. His piece features a large box enclosure containing a styrofoam habitat; live mealworms inhabit the space and actively transform it into their own environment, chewing complex tunnels through the material in their own form of architectural design. The styrofoam waste used in the piece is leftover from research at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, a choice Haynes made in order to showcase the tension that occurs between human and non-human life with animal testing.

Pictured: the process of decomposition by mealworms progressively transforms the styrofoam.

Photo Credit: Narendra Haynes

 

Mealworms decomposing styrofoam.

Video Credit: Narendra Haynes

 

As to what he hopes viewers will take away from his work with styrofoam and mealworms, Haynes prefers to leave it up for interpretation -- “[viewing the exhibit] is an experience. I don’t see my job as taking this moralizing standpoint as to how you should be living, but ecology needs the right packaging in order to become embraced or for people to have it stick, introduce people to alternatives, show people how humans relate to the biosphere, and heighten their consciousness.” Knowing that most people are well aware of pollution’s deleterious effects on our climate and may not be fond of insects like mealworms, Haynes has prioritized showing viewers a different angle of the insect-trash relationship, one that invites reflection on our complex relationship to non-human life.

You can learn more about Narendra Haynes (‘21 MFA, Weitzman School of Design) and his extensive portfolio here.