Plastic waste is a problem. A big, big problem. Seemingly unrelated fact: Lots of people love vanilla. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have managed to combine these two ideas to come up with one of the most novel suggestions yet for reducing plastic garbage. They figured out a way to convert old plastic into vanilla flavoring that can be eaten, reports the Guardian. Researchers unleashed lab-engineered E. coli to transform terephthalic acid into vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla its distinctive taste and smell, per ZME Science. That acid, or TA, is a molecule derived from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the polymer commonly used to make plastic bottles, bags, and other products. The researchers got there through a series of chemical reactions spelled out in the journal Green Chemistry.
"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," says the university's Dr. Stephen Wallace in a news release. The first experiment—in which they converted a degraded water bottle into vanillin—proved the principle, and researchers will now try to tweak the process to make the conversion more efficient, per the Guardian. They also need to conduct further research to prove that the resulting vanillin is indeed safe for human consumption. The work builds on previous research in which scientists engineered a "super-enzyme" to feast on plastic in the lab. The Edinburgh study goes a step further by converting the resulting product into a potentially valuable commodity. (Read more plastic stories.)