UK designer recycles plastic into vanilla ice cream

STORY: This might appear to be your typical bowl of vanilla ice cream… but it is in fact made from plastic waste.

The ice cream was developed by Eleonora Ortolani, an artist and designer who wants to change the way we think about food, and what we consider to be edible.

The confection still has to go through extensive testing before it is available for human consumption.

But until then, Ortolani is sharing her creation through an exhibit called ‘Guilty Flavors’.

[Eleonora Ortolani / Artist and designer]

"So 'Guilty Flavours' is what I believe is the first sample of ice cream made from plastic waste. Actually, the vanillin, contained the ice cream is what it's coming from, the same plastic as we can find in bottles, plastic bottles. And I did that collaborating with bacteria and enzymes that actually naturally evolved to digest plastic.""

The process enlists bacteria and enzymes to digest polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a plastic commonly used in bottles, packaging and food containers, and turn it into vanillin, the molecule that gives vanilla its flavor.

Dr Joanna Sadler, a biotechnologist from the University of Edinburgh, who provided the specifically engineered bugs for Ortolani’s project, says the potential of this process goes beyond vanilla ice cream, to other flavors, and even other food items.

[Dr Joanna Sadler / Biotechnologist / University of Edinburgh]

“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.”

Sadler says she has received backlash for her research on degrading and upcycling plastic for use as feedstock for microbial growth.

She wants to make it clear that products like Ortolani’s ice cream aren’t hitting the shelf at your local grocer anytime soon.

[Dr Joanna Sadler / Biotechnologist / University of Edinburgh]

"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. But I think as part of that 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."

Until then, Ortolani hopes ‘Guilty Flavors’ can help spark vital conversation around plastic pollution and what she says is a looming global food crisis.

[Eleonora Ortolani / Artist and designer]

"This project started from a very big frustration about how the plastic recycling system cannot keep up and also that despite all the information around plastic, plastic production is not decreasing, it's actually increasing."

“When I started this project it was just very science fiction and I was only interested in the critical side, just pushing boundaries and trying to explore what actually is possible and what is not. But during the journey it was already clear that some species did that, some species are eating plastic, and some scientists are already looking into that. So why not?