Can we turn plastic into food? The 1.2 million dollar question!
It's not a science fiction anymore - the very thing that's polluting our planet can be made edible and it's even tasty!
Plastic pollution is an evident problem across the world. Many methods have tried to tackle it over the years. How do we get rid of plastic material that can’t be recycled and that won’t disappear for thousands of years? An unusual answer comes from researchers in the US. They have a method that could turn plastic into food.
Probably the best photo to illustrate the problem with non-recyclable plastics. Sorry, Doug! Credit: MasseyAC
Now, it’s not like they have a sci-fi machine that turns a plastic bottle into a delicious pizza, but they have got microbial communities that can break down plastic and other hard-to-breakdown plant material and turn these products into edible proteins.
In the beginning, the research focuses on turning plastic into protein powder and lubricants, but it originally attempted to do this by using chemical methods and high heat. Recently discovered microbial communities led the researchers to focus instead on microbes. They work was focused on microbial communities in bilge water, the dirty water that collects inside the hull of a ship.
The actual steps from plastic to flour! Credit: Interesting Engineering
The team demonstrated that once the plastic is broken down by heat - it can be fed to the bacteria. The microbes flourish on this meal. They keep growing as long as they have plastic to eat, producing even more bacterial cells. Given that these cells are about 55 percent protein and the rest of it is water - once the plastic has been broken down, they can be dried down as a protein powder for later use. It's basically flour, made out of plastic-eating bacteria. Once dried, they won't come back to life either, because only the protein is left.
The mad science behind the plastic ice cream
The experiment didn't end with the protein. Using capable microbes is one thing, but creating your own is a whole different level. That's what the researchers did, using non other bacteria than E.coli! This harmful creature was genetically modified, not only to eat plastic, but to produce vanillin, once dried. Another batch was tweaked to produce milk protein.
On the left - the building blocks and on the right - the ACTUAL vanilla ice cream! Credit: Green Chemistry
Because why would you put so much effort into something, if you can't make an ice cream out of it?! Yes, that is correct - the researchers made a vanilla ice cream from plastic-eating E.coli bacteria! Chemically and taste-wise indistinguishable from a regular ice cream once it's done, it gives the humanity hope to permanently deal with the plastic pollution. Especially since we're about to run out of vanilla orchid.
Notable agricultures as well as their wild cousins have jumped into the "Endangered" section and may go extinct in the near future
More importantly - the team behind those experiments just earned themselves a solid $1.2 million in financing, by winning the 2021 Future Insight Prize! And they are planning to spend those on a research to make this process more sustainable by not requiring the use of heat for making that plastic suitable for the microbes. Fingers crossed!
They also did a milk shake, which wasn't so good. Credit: Green Chemistry