Scientists Can Now Make Vanilla Flavoring Out of Old Plastic Bottles

  • You can now have your vanilla ice cream and eat it too – if you don’t mind consuming old bottles.

Man, who doesn’t like vanilla ice cream. Some might say it’s a boring flavor, but sometimes the simplest things just are the best.

But did you know that a lot of the vanilla flavoring – or vanillin – used in the food industry has never actually ever been inside a vanilla bean? What you’re tasting is actually a blend of fossil fuel-sourced chemicals.


That’s right, you’re basically eating oil derivatives. The global demand for vanillin is much, much more than what natural vanilla beans could ever provide, so producers had to improvise.

You know what else is made out of fossil fuels? Plastic bottles. And we’re using so many plastic bottles that it’s becoming a real issue.

In case you’ve lived under a rock, you might not know that the planet is having a bit of an issue with the enormous amount of plastic waste we produce. Actually, scratch that, you would know – there would be some waste plastic even under your rock.

Perhaps the best example of that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s an island of trash – most of it plastic – twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make more vanillin easily while at the same time cutting down on plastic waste? Good news, now we can.

“Mmm, you can really taste the trash.”

Brewing Acid

A research team from the University of Edinburgh have developed a method to transform waste plastic bottles into vanillin. In the future, when you have your vanilla ice cream, you might be eating your old Coke bottles.

The research – published in the journal Green Chemistry – builds on previous studies. The earlier discoveries showed that we could turn bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PTE) into something called terephthalic acid.

On its own, the acid isn’t much good for eating. Apart from plastic bottles, it’s used to make drugs, paints, and military smoke grenades.

Yummy.

Authentic Bacteria Flavor

But the researchers from Edinburgh found that it’s possible to turn terephthalic acid into vanillin. All you need is some E. coli.

Yep, that’s the same bacteria that make you poop your guts out. We’re using diarrheic bacteria to process trash – still feeling like some ice cream?

Luckily, in this case, the bacteria have been genetically modified. Apparently, terephthalic acid and vanillin are very similar in chemical structure, so the bacteria only need to make minor changes to the acid.

To get the results they wanted, the scientists threw some bacteria into a batch of acid. They then heated the concoction to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and let it sit for 24 hours.

Their results were promising. The modified E. coli turned roughly 79% of the acid into vanillin.

According to the researchers, the resulting vanillin would be fit for human consumption. In the same breath, though, they add that more research is needed to finetune the process and meet food regulatory standards.

Making the Economy Circular

If the researchers’ results progress enough to make it to the industrial level, they could have a small but significant impact on the circular economy. Every minute, one million plastic bottles are sold around the world, but out of them, only 14% are recycled.

If we started turning some of those bottles into vanillin, it could make a small dent in the trash mountain.

“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,” said the study’s lead author Dr Joanna Sadler.

“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,” she added.

According to co-author Dr Stephen Wallace, the study could even change the way we think about plastic waste altogether.

“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,” said Wallace.

That’s all great news for both environmental advocates and fans of vanilla ice cream. But we bet you’re now wishing you didn’t know where that vanilla flavor comes from.

We sure are.

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