Upcycling plastic bottles into more lucrative materials could make the recycling process far more attractive and effective.
Currently plastics lose about 95 percent of their value as a material after a single use. Encouraging better collection and use of such waste is key to tackling the global plastic pollution problem. Now, scientists at Edinburgh University have figured out a way to convert plastic bottles into vanilla flavouring using genetically engineered bacteria, the first time a valuable chemical has been brewed from waste plastic.
Vanillin, as it's called, is used widely in the food and cosmetics industries and is an important bulk chemical used to make pharmaceuticals, cleaning products and herbicides. Global demand is growing and far exceeds the supply from natural vanilla beans. A second advantage of the University's process is that about 85 percent of vanillin is currently synthesised from chemicals derived from fossil fuels and could therefore replace this carbon intensive process.
Joanna Sadler, of the University of Edinburgh, who conducted the new work, told The Guardian: “This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and it has very exciting implications for the circular economy.”
Stephen Wallace, also of the University of Edinburgh, said: “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.”
Currently only 14 percent of the world's plastic bottles are recycled and can only be turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets. So, Edinburgh's discovery could make a dramatic contribution to improving these numbers.
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