Scientists believe they can turn recycled plastic bottles into edible vanilla flavouring
The process looks to help tackle the excessive amount of PET plastic waste.
Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles have many a use – roads can be made from them, for instance, and I even own clothes made out of them – and given how much of a problem excess plastic waste is, it's important that we do find new uses for it.
While edible food ingredients aren't exactly the first thing you might think to try and use recycled plastics to create, scientists now believe they can actually create an edible vanilla flavouring from them, and although further testing is still required, they believe it should be safe for human consumption.
As published in the Green Chemistry journal, the team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh have used genetically modified E. coli bacteria to turn a plastic bottle into vanillin – the primary source of the taste and scent of vanilla – which, while it can be extracted from vanilla beans, is commonly substituted with synthetic forms in around 85 percent of cases due to the natural form's expense.
Diagram: Joanna C. Sadler and Stephen Wallace, from the journal Green Chemistry
The process of turning the plastic bottles into synthetic vanillin requires first breaking the PET down into terephthalic acid (TA) using enzymes before then using the modified E. coli to transform it into vanillin through brewing it at 37°C, the same as when brewing beer, and although the researchers only managed to get a conversion rate of 79 percent, they believe this can be improved through developments
Speaking with The Guardian, the team behind this process noted that other valuable molecules could be brewed from TA such as those used in perfume.
"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 made," said the University of Edinburgh's Stephen Wallace, one of the paper's co-authors.
The Royal Society of Chemistry's Ellis Crawford agreed, telling The Guardian, "This is a really interesting use of microbial science to improve sustainability. Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry."