Menu Menu

Can chemical upcycling solve the plastic waste crisis?

Scientists have discovered a way to transform plastic bottles into vanillin, the compound which gives vanilla its aroma and taste. Is it an innovative solution to plastic pollution, or just a headline-grabbing experiment?

I’m sure you’ve heard about plenty of innovative recycling techniques, from tasteful art displays to quirky paper Coca Cola bottles.

One which you probably haven’t heard of, however, is a newly developed process that can turn old plastic into chemicals used to flavour ice cream and scent perfume. A Cornetto made from your discarded Buxton water bottle? Sign us up.

Using engineered E.coli bacteria, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have converted terephthalic acid – a monomer of plastic – into vanillin. This is the compound which gives vanilla its unique smell and taste.

This innovative breakthrough is a new form of ‘upcycling’, where chemical and bio-synthetic methods are used to re-purpose harmful waste plastics, turning them into useful materials.

Should we re-assess how we view plastic?

With the global plastic crisis unlikely to slow in the next few years, should we reconsider what is ‘wasteful’ and rethink our idea of plastic as a material?

One of the study’s researchers, Stephen Wallace, seems to think so. ‘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 made’.

This is a bold statement, one which reframes the dominant narrative around waste plastic, suggesting that its very excess could work to counter shortages of other raw materials.

Global demand from vanillin is growing rapidly, with the market value of vanilla expected to rise from $510 million in 2018 to $735 million by 2026.

This, alongside a global scarcity of naturally occurring vanilla beans predominantly found in Madagascar, suggest that the researchers at Edinburgh could be on to a winning – and necessary – solution.

For a study which was only published a few weeks ago, the signs look positive. The process produces no hazardous waste, can be completed at 37 degrees (the same temperature at which beer is brewed), and requires limited materials.

Whilst more information is required to determine whether it can be reproduced on a large scale, corporations worldwide will no doubt keenly follow future developments.

Appealing to a Gen Z market

Scientific experiments like this offer ripe opportunities to further gain favour with a growing number of environmentally conscious Gen-Z consumers.

Unilever have been upfront that their social conscience initiatives stem largely from a desire to stay ‘relevant’ to younger audiences.

On announcing their pledge to halve the amount of new plastic they use, CEO Alan Jope declared his awareness of this demographic and their concerns with ‘the conduct of the companies and the brands they’re buying’.

He’s far from alone, with Nestle planning to phase out all non-recyclable plastics from its wrappers by 2025, and Coca-Cola committed to doubling the amount of recycled plastic it uses in bottles.

A 2018 Censuswide survey revealed that 80% of 18-22 year olds entering the workforce believe that tackling single use plastics is important for employers. Campaigns such as 2018’s #StopSucking movement focused on ending plastic straw circulation and offered advice to young people on how they can play an active role in pushing big companies to change.

These organisations want to demonstrate that they are part of the solution, not the problem. Clever, highly marketable upcycling strategies such as this one can offer an attractive way in which they can do so.

The risk of greenwashing and misleading customers

Yet, could ‘solutions’ such as these offer companies a way to fulfil sustainability objectives from a PR perspective, without actually tackling the problem?

We have already seen Starbucks declare themselves to be ‘leading in sustainability’ whilst only last year launching a new range of plastic cups. This on top of an upcycling method that encourages plastic waste to be viewed as beneficial could cause more problems.

This is all, of course, hypothetical. Whilst researchers are optimistic that they can both scale up the process and increase their conversion rate,  it remains to be seen whether this can be done to a degree which would have any measurable impact on the vast quantities of plastic bottles used daily.

Even if it does, would consumers really want vanilla flavoured ice-cream or perfume that begun its life as a plastic water bottle?

This innovation is, without doubt,  an incredibly exciting breakthrough, and will hopefully usher in a new era of inventive upcycling techniques, but let’s be wary that it doesn’t fully distract from the issue as it stands.

An estimated million plastic bottles are sold every minute, and a limited proportion of those are recycled in the first place.

Programmes like this, which encourage us to consider not only what, but how, we recycle, can certainly form part of the solution, but they must be accompanied with concerted corporate and individual action to limit plastic waste overall.

However, with a multi-faceted approach, including scientific innovations such as this one, continued upward pressure from activists, and strategies of waste limitation, we might be on the right track.


This article was originally written by Tom Hamp. ‘Hi, I’m Tom (he/him) and I’ve just finished by second year studying English at the University of Oxford. I love writing, am passionate about politics and social change, and am interested in learning about innovative ways to build a more ethical and sustainable future.’


Thred Newsletter!

Sign up to our planet-positive newsletter