Scientists Convert Recycled Plastic Into Vanilla Flavouring

by : Daniel Richardson on :
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Scientists have found a way to convert recycled plastic bottles into vanilla flavouring by using genetically engineered bacteria.

Plastic bottles are currently the second most common type of plastic pollution. This has led to the material severly impacting wildlife and creating widespread pollution.


In an effort to combat this growing environmental issue, scientists have developed a mutant enzyme that can break down polyethylene terephthalate found in bottles into vanillin – the essential constituent of vanilla and vanilla flavouring.

Dump site (PA Images)PA Images

Vanillin is a popular chemical that is part of a growing market; not only is it an in-demand flavouring, but it has wider pharmaceutical and herbicide uses.

As a result, demand for vanillin was more than 37,000 tonnes in 2018, and 85% of it is currently being synthesised from fossil fuels; the ability to use recycled bottles as part of its development could therefore greatly reduce plastic pollution.


Joanna Sadler, of the University of Edinburgh, explained the significance of the development:

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.

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.

Dr. Stephen Wallace, also of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, noted the importance of the discovery:

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 obtained.

Factory emissions are responsible for dangerous air pollution (PA Images)PA Images

Given that plastics ‘lose 95% of their material value’ after a single use, the ability to convert 79% of the product into something of value could be significant in recycling efforts.

The next step is developing a methodology that can allow scientists to quicken this breakdown of chemicals so it can be used more broadly. While this sounds like a significant task, the team behind the study, published in Green Chemistry, are confident about their ability to do this.


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Ellis Crawford, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has discussed the significant impact that this development could have:


This is a really interesting use of microbial science to improve sustainability. Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry.

This work is the first case of ‘upcycling’ plastic in this way, and it is hoped that when it is optimised it can radically alter how we view plastic and what we do with it after we’ve used it.

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Daniel Richardson

After graduating from university, Dan went on to work with a variety of tech startups and media outlets. Through working with the likes of Game Rant, The Hook and What Culture, Dan pursued his interests in technology. The skills he picked up along the way are now being utilised with UNILAD.

Topics: Science, Now, Plastic, Pollution, Technology


Green Chemistry and 1 other
  1. Green Chemistry

    Microbial synthesis of vanillin from waste poly(ethylene terephthalate)†

  2. The University of Edinburgh

    Bacteria serves tasty solution to plastic crisis