Transforming plastic into vanilla

A recent study has revealed that E. coli, the common bacteria, are able to convert plastic into vanilla flavouring. A group of researchers from Edinburgh experimented with lab engineered E.coli, which through a series of chemical reactions transformed one of the components of PET plastic (terephthalic acid) into vanillin. Vanillin is the component in vanilla pods that gives them the characteristic flavour.

Currently, 50 million tons of PET plastic are being disposed each year. It is possible to recycle this type of plastic, but costly. At the same time, this process does not eliminate eventual plastic waste from our planet.

It has been known for years that E.coli can produce vanillin, however this is the first time that the original source of the vanillin is plastic. According to one of the authors of the study, this is the first time plastic waste has been converted into a valuable chemical compound through a biological system. This discovery and the potential of turning plastic bottles that would otherwise end up in landfills into vanillin is a step toward a more circular economy.

It is not yet clear whether the vanillin produced in this way is fit for human consumption, so further testing is necessary. If it proves to be fit, this method of manufacturing vanillin could be broadly applied in the production of cosmetics as well as food. Transforming plastic into vanillin not only has the potential to remove plastic waste, but also creates a valuable ingredient. The demand for vanilla has been growing; while the global vanilla market was valued at $510 million in 2018, it is expected to go up to $735 million by 2026.

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