THE disposal of plastic waste is a problem. Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade naturally and it causes a lot of environmental problems. It kills marine animals which mistake it for food. It breaks down into small pieces and harms the marine ecosystem.

Plastic is recyclable but only a small percentage is actually recycled. Many solutions to the plastic problem have been proposed or implemented. The most radical is to ban single-use plastics like bottles, bags, straws, stirrers and cutlery.

Now there is an out-of-this-world solution to the plastic problem. If you can’t dispose of it, eat it! Yes, according to experts, we can actually eat plastic. Not in its raw form, of course. Else, you will end up dead like the millions of marine species.

How? Scientists at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh have devised a way to turn plastic into vanillin, a chemical compound in vanilla extract that gives it its distinct vanilla aroma and flavor. Madagascar grows 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla. But vanillin also can be made synthetically. Approximately 85 percent of the world’s vanillin is synthesized from chemicals that are derived from fossil fuels. And now, it can be made from plastic!

To create it, researchers genetically modified a strain of E. coli bacteria so that it can make vanillin from terephthalic acid, a raw material used in the production of plastic bottles, which can be broken down using special enzymes that reduce them to their basic chemical components. Because it uses microbial fermentation, the chemistry is similar to that of brewing beer.

There are benefits in creating vanillin from plastic instead of petroleum. It increases vanillin supply, eliminates plastic waste, reduces reliance on fossil fuels and preserves forests. So don’t be surprised if your vanilla ice cream got its flavor from plastic waste!

And here’s another one. Researchers developed a process for using microbes to transform plastic waste into protein. Lu, professor of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Techtmann, associate professor of Biological Sciences at Michigan Technological University, used chemicals to break down plastic polymers and then uses naturally occurring microbes to convert the plastic building blocks into microbial biomass that has nutritional value.

Lu said that plastic and food both contain the essential building blocks of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The chemical formula for PET, the kind of plastic used for water bottles, is (C10H8O4)n, while the formula for wheat flour is (C6H10O5)n.

The end result is called “microbial cells”, which are made up of very similar things to the food that we eat. They contain proteins, lipids, and vitamins. These cells currently take the form of a powder that could itself be a food product and could also be used to make energy bars or other types of food.