We produce more than 380 million tons of plastic every year, with over 8 million tons of plastic waste escaping our oceans. Researchers have come up with a creative solution to address this growing plastic issue, and interestingly, their solution smells and tastes divine.
By getting help from genetically altered bacteria, a team of scientists at the University of Edinburgh was able to convert plastic bottles into vanilla flavoring. This is the first time a significant chemical has been accomplished from plastic waste.
The study, published in the journal Green Chemistry, clarifies how bacteria may be utilized to change plastic into vanillin, a compound that is used not just in food, yet also in beauty care products and drugs.
The bacteria, E. coli, was genetically modified to turn terephthalic acid into vanillin. Terephthalic acid is a molecule derived from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic made from non-renewable sources, and is commonly used to make plastic water bottles and clamshell packaging. Current recycling methods can only break it down into its fundamental element parts and make products that continue to contribute to plastic pollution worldwide, yet the world produces 50 million tons of such waste every year.
With the E.coli method, the scientists were able to convert terephthalic acid to vanillin at a rate of 79%. By adding bacteria to the degraded plastic waste, the team converted an old plastic bottle into vanillin in demonstrations.
“This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and this has very exciting implications for the circular economy,” said Joanna Sadler, first author of the paper, in a statement. The researchers claim the vanillin yielded is fit for human consumption, but further tests are required to say for sure.
“The results from our research have major implications for the field of plastic sustainability and demonstrate the power of synthetic biology to address real-world challenges.”