Plastic Waste Plus Bacteria Makes Vanilla, Apparently

As scientists continue to look for ways to combat the plastic waste that crusts coasts and clogs rivers globally, their solutions occasionally take on an air of desperation. Or, in the case of a new study undertaken by scientists in the UK, a scent of vanilla, as they’ve managed to turn plastic waste into vanillin; the compound responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla.

The Smithsonian Magazine reported on the new study, which the scientists published in the journal Green Chemistry. The team says it aimed to develop a way to deal with “recycled polyethylene terephthalate,” or PET. For those unfamiliar, PET is a strong, lightweight plastic producers make from non-renewable materials like oil and gas.

A ton of plastic bottles falling like rain into a big pile.

To turn the plastic waste into vanillin—an organic compound that naturally occurs in vanilla beans—the scientists used Escherichia coli. A.k.a. E. Coli. (A more familiar term for anyone who’s played fast-food Russian Roulette one too many times.) After genetically engineering the E. coli, the scientists used it to transform terephthalic acid—a molecule derived from PET—into vanillin. For a full demonstration, the team even converted a plastic bottle into vanillin.

“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,” Joanna Sadler, first author of the study, said in a press release. “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,” Sadler added.

The scientists believe their plastic-waste vanillin is likely fit for human consumption, but caution more studies are necessary. Even if it turns out this type of vanillin is not suitable for consumption, however, other industries could still use it.

The cosmetic industry, for example, uses vanillin in its products. So too do cleaning-product companies and herbicide manufacturers. Which kind of makes you wonder how it’s possible everything doesn’t smell like vanilla literally all the time. Which wouldn’t be terrible, right?

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