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Trash to treats: UK designer creates vanilla ice cream from recycled plastic

By Jassy Manuel Published Sep 29, 2023 4:14 pm

A designer from the United Kingdom originally had the idea of recycling plastic into vanilla ice cream as mere science project. Later into the journey, she realized some species had already eaten plastic. “So why not?” she said.

Artist Eleonora Ortolani recycled plastic into a vanilla ice cream for her art installation "Guilty Flavours" with hopes of changing the way people think about food. 

“Guilty Flavours is what I believe is the first sample of ice cream made from plastic waste,” Ortolani told Reuters. “Actually, the vanillin contained [in] the ice cream is what it's coming from, the same plastic as we can find in bottles, plastic bottles.” 

This process happens when bacteria and enzymes are enlisted to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic commonly found in containers and bottles. These PETs will then be turned into vanillin, the molecule that gives vanilla its flavor.  

“I did that collaborating with bacteria and enzymes that actually naturally evolved to digest plastic,” Ortolani added. 

The 27-year-old designer’s urge is rooted in the frustration of how the plastic recycling system cannot keep up despite the numerous advocacies as plastic production still increases. 

Dr. Joanna Sadler from the University of Edinburgh shed light on the possibilities of this art project going beyond just a vanilla ice cream to other flavors and even other food items.  

“Once you break down the plastics, in this case PET, once you break it down into its building blocks, we call those monomers, you can turn those into many, many different things,” the biotechnologist said, in support of Ortolani’s project.  

While citizens threw criticisms on this research, Sadler assured that this product is not up for some buy-and-sell and human consumption anytime soon. The confectionery has yet to undergo several tests to be proven safe for human consumption.

"I've even had members of the public email me saying it's irresponsible to encourage people to eat plastic. And I think it's that there's this perhaps misconception around what it actually is by the end of the process, that is no longer plastic," Sadler said.

“It is really important that we take the safety side of it really, really seriously and we make it very clear that this has to go through exactly the same regulatory processes and food standard processes as any other food ingredient and only once it has been through all of those would it go anywhere near any kind of consumer product,” Sadler added.  

Until then, Ortolani aimed for the confection product to spark some heated debates about what humans consider to eat and the future of the plastic pollution crisis.