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Scientists Have Found a Way to Convert Used Plastic Bottles Into Vanilla Flavoring

Scientists Have Found a Way to Convert Used Plastic Bottles Into Vanilla Flavoring

Plastic waste, such as carry bags, soft drink or water bottles, and other items, may soon be converted into vanilla flavoring by genetically engineered bacteria.

With an estimated 50 million tonnes of PET plastic waste produced each year, the world's plastic crisis has had serious economic and environmental consequences. Upcycling plastic bottles into more valuable materials could make recycling far more appealing and effective. 

Vanillin is widely used in the food and cosmetics industries and manufactures pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, and herbicides. Global demand increased and reached 37,000 metric tons in 2018, far exceeding supply from natural vanilla beans. Currently, approximately 85 percent of vanillin is synthesized from chemicals derived from fossil fuels.

According to the recent study published in the journal Green Chemistry, scientists have devised a novel approach to combating the global plastic waste crisis while also creating something sweeter in the process. 

The scientists converted terephthalic acid, a plastic-derived molecule, to vanillin at a rate of 79 percent (TA). According to the report, this is the “first biological upcycling of post-consumer plastic waste into vanillin using an engineered microorganism.”

Scientists have already developed mutant enzymes to break down plastic bottles into basic units, which they then converted into vanillin.

Recently researchers from the University of Edinburgh used an engineered microorganism, Escherichia coli bacteria, to convert plastic waste into vanillin, the main flavor component of vanilla beans. According to the researchers, this discovery is a significant step forward in the fight against plastic waste, a major issue worldwide.

These experiments did not simply transform plastic bottles into vanilla ice cream bowls. To upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical, the scientists had to go through a series of intermediate steps. According to The Guardian, the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) must first be broken down into terephthalic acid (TA) using engineered "super-enzymes." The engineered E. coli is then used to convert the TA into vanillin.

Stephen Wallace, the co-author of the study and associate professor at the University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian, "Our work challenges 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 made."

In future studies, the researchers hope to use the bacteria to increase the amount of TA converted into vanillin and scale the process to convert larger amounts of plastic at once.

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