What Do Used Plastic Bottles Have to Do with Vanilla Ice Cream?

There might finally be a tasty solution to the mounds and mounds of plastic waste that are piling up in landfills around the world.

With the help of genetically-engineered bacteria, researchers turned used plastic bottles into synthetic vanillin, a flavoring used in ice cream and other foods.
With the help of genetically-engineered bacteria, researchers turned used plastic bottles into synthetic vanillin, a flavoring used in ice cream and other foods.

A group of researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have found a way to convert discarded plastic into synthetic vanilla flavoring by using genetically engineered bacteria. "This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and it has very exciting implications for the circular economy," said Joanna Sadler, the project's lead researcher.

The team built on earlier work that broke down the polyethylene terephthalate polymer used in drinks bottles into terephthalic acid (TA). The Edinburgh team then utilized bacteria to convert the TA into vanillin. "Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry," said Ellis Crawford of the Royal Society of Chemistry in London. Plastic bottles are the second-most common form of plastic pollution in the oceans, after bags.

The pain of plastic:

  • Less than 10 percent of the approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled.

  • More than 1 million plastic bottles are sold in the world every minute.

  • The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean is the combined size of Europe, India, and Mexico and is composed mostly of small bits of plastic.

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    • With the help of genetically-engineered bacteria, researchers turned used plastic bottles into synthetic vanillin, a flavoring used in ice cream and other foods.
      With the help of genetically-engineered bacteria, researchers turned used plastic bottles into synthetic vanillin, a flavoring used in ice cream and other foods.