Scientists have found a way to create vanilla flavouring from plastic bottles. In short, a genetically engineered bacteria consumes the plastic and converts it into matter that is fit for human consumption.
According to the researchers, this is the first time post-consumer plastic waste is “upcycled” into a profitable chemical, and it could be a valuable strategy to tackle the worldwide plastic waste epidemic.
Because plastics lose roughly 95% of their value as a material after a single use, being able to manufacture more valuable materials from waste could aid the fight against plastic pollution and the transition to a more circular economy.
How it works
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland utilised an engineered bacterium called Escherichia coli to assist breaking down biodegrade PET plastics into vanillin, which is widely used in various industries.
It is used in the manufacturing of herbicides, antifoaming agents and cleaning goods, as well as in food and cosmetics.
In its natural form, vanillin is derived from the extract of vanilla beans and is responsible for vanilla’s distinct flavour and aroma. It is a costly material and demand is increasing rapidly with a market size of $724.5 (£514) million expected by 2025.
But vanillin can also be synthesised, and petrochemicals are used for 85% of global vanillin production in a two-step process.
Scientists have already produced mutant enzymes to break down plastic bottles into fundamental units, which were now turned into vanillin by the scientists. “This is the first example of employing a biological system to epicycle plastic trash into a valuable industrial chemical, and it has extremely interesting implications for the circular economy,” said Joanna Sadler, who led the study.
With an estimated 50 million tonnes of PET plastic garbage produced each year, the world’s plastic crisis has had major economic and environmental consequences.
“Our work challenges the image of plastic as a problematic waste and instead illustrates its usage as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be obtained,” said Stephen Wallace, who also worked on the project.
Get the Mzansi Flavour newsletter: A weekly serving of craveable recipes and handy lifestyle tips.