Vanilla ice cream cone


Vanilla plastic… the latest scoop!

Environment > Vanilla plastic… the latest scoop!

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Scientists have found a tasty solution to help tackle plastic waste - by recycling it into vanilla flavouring.

28 June 2021, 4:22 PM


With around 50 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year, researchers are now serving a tasty solution to the global plastic crisis.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh are tackling the mounting issue of plastic pollution by turning recycled plastic into vanilla flavouring.

But how? Here comes the technical bit…

The world's plastic crisis is crying out for new methods to recycle polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET. PET is the strong, lightweight plastic derived from non-renewable materials, such as oil and gas, and is widely used for food packaging which is having a serious impact on the environment and the economy. 

Scientists have discovered that the common bacteria E. coli can be altered as a sustainable way to convert plastic into vanillin. Using lab engineered E. coliscientists are transforming terephthalic acid - a molecule derived from PET - into the high value compound vanillin, via a series of chemical reactions.

We know what you’re thinking – E. coli? Doesn’t that make you ill?! Actually, most E.coli are completely harmless, including this one, and are part of a healthy digestive system so it’s completely safe.

And no, we haven’t spelt vanilla wrong. Vanillin is the naturally occurring chemical compound that we recognise as the primary aroma and taste of vanilla - you learn something new every day!

The team have even been able to use this technique to convert a used plastic bottle into vanillin by simply adding the E. coli to the degraded plastic waste. 

Researchers say that the vanillin produced would be safe for us to eat and drink but further tests are required, so it could be a tasty treat one day!

In 2018, the global demand for vanillin was in excess of 37,000 tonnes! That’s because you’ll find vanillin in lots of products you might not think of – not only can vanillin be found in ice cream and coffees, but it’s also in your candles, cosmetics and cleaning products.

This transformation could boost the circular economy, which is an economic system aiming to eliminate waste, keep products and materials in use and have positive impacts for the environment. 

So, in the future, our plastic waste could literally be served up in our favourite desserts - bon appétit!

Next article: Overfishing technology

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