Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a commonly used plastic. It is robust, light and inexpensive, very suitable for packaging and various items. PET is made from non-renewable materials like oil and natural gas.
As it is a difficult material to recycle, various investigations have sought to give it a better location. From the hand of a bacterium, a team from the University of Edinburgh managed to transform samples of this plastic into vanilla flavoring.
Vainillin synthesized from PET plastic
It sounds strange, but a report from that university in the United Kingdom affirms that it is possible. Through engineering work with common Escherichia Coli, they were able to break down terephthalic acid derived from PET into vanillin to a basic level.
That compound is found mainly in vanilla beans, these being responsible for its characteristic aroma and flavor, characteristic of many culinary preparations.
This advance in biotechnology was proposed by researchers in pursuit of the development of a circular economy, in times marked by a trend towards sustainable behaviors. In this way, plastic pollution could be reduced and usable by-products obtained after recycling.
“This is the first example of the use of a biological system to convert plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and this has very interesting implications for the circular economy”, commented Joanna Sadler, lead author of the study. “The results of our research have important implications for the field of plastic sustainability and demonstrate the power of synthetic biology to address real-world challenges.”added the also researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
Gradually, given the impact that different industries generate on the environment, The care of these aspects has begun to become a global standard. In the particular case that this proposal attacks, PET plastic is widely used in the food industry. Plastic bottles, food containers and other types of packages accumulate approximately 50 million tons of waste each year, according to the researchers.
Although it is possible to recycle PET, in practice it has not been an alternative that has penetrated very deep, since its reuse is generally limited to the creation of more plastic by-products. For the same reason, nowadays it is common to find specimens of this type in landfills.
The generation of vanillin from plastic should contribute, at least in part, to solving the global problem around contamination and incidentally, generate a new chain of work around this controversial material.
At the moment, the idea is still subject to scientific analysis, to confirm whether it is really possible to develop an industrial process adapted to this dynamic and, most importantly, to verify whether the vanillin they produce is really safe for human consumption.
A full report of this investigation can be consulted at paper, which points out more detailed aspects of this incipient work.