Trash to Treats: How Scientists Are Turning Plastic Waste Into Vanilla Flavoring

Photo Courtesy: Yagi Studio/DigitalVision/Getty Images; Mohd Azri Suratmin/EyeEm/Getty Images; Anton Petrus/Moment/Getty Images; Birgit Korber/EyeEm/Getty Images

Plastic is undeniably ubiquitous these days. It’s in plenty of places where we expect to encounter it — the pens in our offices, the takeout containers at our restaurants, the toothbrushes in our homes, the shopping bags from our local retailers — but it’s also filling our oceans and waterways at an alarming rate. Without immediate and widespread action, it’s estimated that nearly 1.3 billion tons of plastic waste will end up in our oceans by 2040. And that’s in addition to the 8 million annual tons that have been flowing into these bodies of water in recent years.

The problems plastic waste causes are multilateral. They’re a threat to sealife, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, because “marine species ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, which causes severe injuries and deaths” that harm populations of these creatures on a large scale. The organization also reports that “plastic pollution threatens food safety and quality, human health [and] coastal tourism and contributes to climate change.” For these and other reasons, environmentalists and scientists have long been searching for methods of remediating the growing problem of plastic waste.

Surprisingly, a potential solution may arise in the form of a classic confection flavoring. Scientists have recently found that, with the assistance of some helpful bacteria, plastic waste can be converted into vanillin, a synthetic compound used in vanilla scents and flavorings. Through this simple process of breaking down plastic, researchers have set humanity on a pathway to utilizing single-use plastics as valuable resources — and potentially discovered an opportunity to solve one of the most extensive environmental disasters we’re facing today.