Nature has already evolved plastic eating bugs. Not to be outsmarted by Mother Nature, Scientists have genetically engineered bacteria to convert discarded plastic bottles into vanilla flavouring. Now plastic recycling can be more than a worthy exercise in ecology but also a profitable enterprise.
A scientific breakthrough challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste. This groundbreaking research demonstrates how polluting products can be epicycled as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be obtained.
Plastic waste enters the world of up-cycling. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have harnessed the ability of an engineered microorganism, Escherichia coli, to convert biodegradable polyethylene terephthalate polymer (PET) plastics into vanillin, which is widely used across numerous industries.
Vanilla is found in food and cosmetics, as well as in the formulation of herbicides, antifoaming agents, and cleaning products.
Vanillin is an extract of vanilla beans and is responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla. It is an expensive product, with an expanding market that is projected to be worth US$724.5 (£514) million by 2025.
Synthetic Vanillin can also be made from petrochemicals.
Now mutant enzymes have already been developed to break down plastic bottles into basic components and then converted into vanillin. This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and has momentous implications for the circular economy.
The world’s plastic crisis has resulted in serious economic and environmental impacts, with an estimated 50 million tonnes of PET plastic waste being produced each year.