Vanilla from plastic bottles ?


Can we make vanilla from plastic bottles?  The answer is no – natural vanilla comes from a vanilla bean.  But using plastic waste and an engineered bacteria, scientists from the University of Edinburgh have created vanillin molecules that are the chemical match of the vanilla extracted from beans.   

Natural vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world, second to saffron. It is used in foods and cosmetics but also in cleaning products and herbicides. Demand exceeds supply, so about 85% of vanilla flavoring is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. 

But the U.E. researchers have shown that they can create the exact same chemical using recycled PET bottles, which are normally downcycled into low value products that in turn create plastic waste issues.  

Using a lab engineered E.coli microbe, the scientists were able to upcycle terephthalic acid derived from PET bottles into valuable vanillin.

“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.  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.

Joanna SadlerFirst author and BBSRC Discovery Fellow , School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh

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