Scientists have developed a way to convert plastic waste into vanillin. Vanillin is the main chemical component of vanilla flavoring, but real vanilla extract has over 2,000 chemical compounds. Vanillin is not only used in the food industry, but also in pharmaceuticals, fragrances, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Vanillin is in higher demand than natural vanilla production can provide, so alternate sources are necessary.
On one level, this is a great scientific accomplishment. Hey, we’ve found something useful to do with all this plastic waste that’s piling up everywhere! But like the announcement of other products made from plastic waste – shoes, sunglasses, Jenga blocks – it feels a little hollow. Umm…yay? What will happen to those things at the end of their life span? They’ll be plastic waste again, because this stuff literally never goes away.
In 2014 I participated in the Ocean Cleanup Megaexpedition. I sailed from Hawaii to San Francisco on a tiny boat with 5 other people to collect plastic from the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch. The founder of The Ocean Cleanup, Boyan Slat, had developed a passive system for removing plastic floating on the surface of the ocean. The system has been deployed, and is successfully removing plastic from oceans and rivers. But this doesn’t stop the constant flow of more plastic into the environment.
Every time you use a plastic water bottle, or purchase soap in a plastic bottle, or some other product with unnecessary plastic, you are making a decision to contribute more plastic to the environment. There are companies that make money from manufacturing and selling plastic. Those companies have development teams and sales agents constantly coming up with new ways of selling plastic. Remember when some liquid soaps came out with microbeads to exfoliate your skin (something normally accomplished with natural products)? The microbeads enter the water, where they’re eaten by fish and move up the food chain, compounding the impact of toxic chemicals. (Watch the awesome documentary The Story of Plastic on Amazon Prime)
We cannot passively move through life as though the things we do don’t matter. We are making our bed, and we will have to sleep in it. I write this not to start a charge to ban using plastics to make vanilla, but rather to encourage us all to think more about our impact on the earth. I am also not suggesting that you have to drastically change your life tomorrow. But I do think we can try to be a little better every day. Small changes over time are better than no change at all. In 50 years will we be consuming real vanilla, or will we be consuming vanilla derived from plastic waste? What other consequences will we face in a world drowning in plastic?