Turning plastics into food: UK scientists convert post-consumer PET into edible vanillin

UK – A team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom have developed a novel solution of addressing post-consumer PET, converting it into human food.

To create human food, Vanillin in particular, the researcher’s lab-engineered E. coli to transform terephthalic acid – a molecule derived from PET – into the molecule known for giving vanilla its characteristic taste and smell.

Known as the “Queen of Flavors,” vanilla is the second most sought-after flavor in food and beverages after mint.

 The classic and versatile taste continues to be a highly sought after ingredient for taste combinations and new F&B applications.

“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 obtained,” says Dr. Stephen Wallace, principal investigator of the study and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellow from the University of Edinburgh.

Although further experimental tests would be required to ascertain the safety of the plastic-derived vanillin, the study shows the potential that lies in the use of biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemicals.

“This has very exciting implications for the circular economy. 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,” Wallace added.

The research from Edinburg comes at a time when the world is grappling with a plastic waste problem.

Approximately 50 million metric tons of PET waste are produced annually, causing serious economic and environmental impacts.

PET recycling is possible, but existing processes create products that continue to contribute to plastic pollution worldwide.

As it has proved almost impossible to rid supply chains of plastics, recycling at greater levels than we currently see seems to be the only silver bullets to the problem.

Major consumer packaged goods companies that are responsible for the billions of plastics churned out annually have already committed to ambitious plastic goals.

Unilever and Swiss food giant Nestle have f has for instance committed to halving the use of virgin plastics in its supply chains and making 100% of their packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

Although their commitments are aimed at making food packaging more recyclable, upcycling plastics could be another viable solution to the plastic menace.

“This is a really interesting use of microbial science at the molecular level to improve sustainability and work toward a circular economy,” affirms Dr. Ellis Crawford, publishing editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity and platform molecule with broad applications in cosmetics and food is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry.”

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