Scientists Convert Plastic Bottles Into Vanillin Using Bacteria

Could E.coli serve as a tasty solution to our plastic problem?
Derya Ozdemir

We produce more than 380 million tonnes of plastic every year, with over 8 million tons of plastic waste escaping into our oceans. Scientists have come up with a creative solution to address this growing plastic problem, and the best thing is that their solution smells and tastes divine.

By getting help from a genetically modified bacteria, a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh was able to turn plastic bottles into vanilla flavoring. This is the first time a valuable chemical has been achieved from plastic waste.

The study, published in the journal Green Chemistry, explains how bacteria may be used to transform plastic into vanillin, a compound that is used not just in food, but also in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The bacteria, E. coli, was genetically modified to convert terephthalic acid into vanillin. Terephthalic acid is a molecule derived from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a form of plastic created from non-renewable sources, and is commonly used to make plastic water bottles and clamshell packaging. Current recycling techniques can only break it down into its fundamental element parts and create products that continue to contribute to plastic pollution worldwide, yet the world generates 50 million tonnes of such waste every year.

With the E.coli technique, the researchers were able to convert terephthalic acid to vanillin at a rate of 79 percent. By adding bacteria to the degraded plastic waste, the team converted an old plastic bottle into vanillin in demonstrations.

"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 author of the paper, in a statement. The researchers claim the vanillin yielded is fit for human consumption, but further tests are required to say for sure. "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."

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