Scientists Discover How to Convert Plastic Waste Into Vanilla Flavoring
Researchers have found a novel solution to the growing problem of plastic waste. Their answer is to convert plastic into vanillin, the primary component of the vanilla bean extract that is behind the characteristic smell and taste of vanilla.
Published in Green Chemistry this month, the research seeks to “transform [plastic waste] into something with higher value and more industrial utility.” The findings aim at the creation of a circular economy — a regenerative economic system that eliminates waste by continuously using the same finite resources we have.
“Our work challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be obtained,” Stephen Wallace, senior lecturer in biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., who co-authored the study, told the press.
In this study, researchers used PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, a form of light-weight polyester used for packaging personal care products like shampoos, liquid soap, lotions; foods and beverages; and even tennis balls. Globally, 50 million tonnes of PET waste is generated every year — threatening the ecosystem.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh used a microbe to convert this plastic waste. In their experiments, they used “genetic engineering,”, or the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by altering its genetic make-up, to create a strain of the bacteria E. coli — known to naturally occur in human intestines. When added to degraded plastic waste, this genetically modified strain of the bacteria was found to convert PET into vanillin.
Demand for vanillin is high in the food and cosmetics industries. And at present, its demand outweighs its supply from natural sources — so much so that scientists have begun exploring alternate means to produce it.
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For now, the researchers are unsure whether the vanillin produced from plastic waste meets regulatory standards for human consumption. But they believe it would be useful for the cosmetic industry — alongside industries involved in the production of herbicides and cleaning products that make use of vanillin.
“This is a really interesting use of microbial science at the molecular level to improve sustainability,” Ellis Crawford, editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry, the organization that published the study in its journal, said in a statement. “Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity and platform molecule with broad applications in cosmetics and food is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry,” she added.
Moreover, artificially manufactured vanillin can also reduce our dependence on vanilla beans, which is known to have a “high water footprint” — a kilogram of vanilla beans requires more than 126,000 liters of water.
The ubiquity of plastics has large-scale ramifications on our ecosystem and our future — by contributing to climate change and threatening food safety and quality, besides directly harming our health and that of marine animals. Single-use plastic is present in the oceans, the soil, the sea breeze, in rain and snow, and also, in our food — so much so that we could be eating one credit card worth of plastic each week.
The duo behind the research is now planning to find ways to derive other valuable molecules — just like vanillin — from plastic waste. “To me, this is only the beginning… I think we are in a really exciting place now that we are realizing we can do all sorts of things with waste plastic,” Joanna Sadler, a biotechnologist from the University of Edinburgh, who co-authored the study, said.