Our planet is choking on plastic. According to the United Nations, 79% of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic produced every year accumulates in landfills. Half of all plastic produced is actually designed to be used just once and thrown away. But plastic is not only accumulating on land. In fact, the world’s oceans are projected to contain more plastic by weight than fish by the year 2050.
According to new research, solving the plastic waste issue could help address another prominent global issue: hunger. A multidisciplinary team of engineers, chemists, and biologists led by researchers from Michigan Tech University has developed a process to break plastics down to be recycled into useful products, including edible protein powder.
The research team’s process converts plastic into compounds using heat and a reactor that deconstructs the material’s polymer chains. The oil-like substance is then fed to a community of oil-eating bacteria. The bacteria grow rapidly on the oily diet, producing more bacterial cells composed of roughly 55% protein. This majority-protein byproduct is then dried out and turned into an edible powder. The end result doesn’t look like plastic at all. In fact, it resembles a yeast byproduct that comes from brewing beer.
This research is funded by an award from the US Department of Defense. The DoD often deploys soldiers in areas where access to food is challenging. Converting plastic to protein could be part of a solution to that problem.
While eating something that began as plastic might take some getting used to, it could be part of the solution to both plastic pollution and global hunger.
Photo, posted February 2, 2022, courtesy of Ivan Radic via Flickr.