Is Bacteria the Tasty Solution to the Plastic Problem?

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have come up with a novel way to tackle the mounting issue of plastic pollution by using bacteria to transform plastic waste into vanilla flavouring.

In a new study, the researchers set out to develop new methods to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the strong, lightweight plastic made from non-renewable materials like oil and gas.

Around 50 million tonnes of PET waste are produced annually, according to the researchers, causing serious economic and environmental impacts and while PET recycling is possible, existing processes create products that continue to contribute to plastic pollution worldwide.

The scientists discovered that the common bacteria E. coli can be deployed as a sustainable way to convert post-consumer plastic into vanillin – the primary component of extracted vanilla bean responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla.

The vanillin produced would be fit for human consumption, the researchers said, but further experimental tests are required.

The transformation could boost the circular economy with the work challenging 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.

“This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and this has very exciting implications for the circular economy,” said Joanna Sadler-First, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh.

“The results from our research have major implications for the field of plastic sustainability and demonstrate the power of synthetic biology to address real-world challenges.