Scientists research turning plastics into protein powder

Food shortages are worsening around the world. And the plastic pollution crisis continues to intensify. What if there was one solution to both of these problems?

A Michigan scientist thinks there could be.

"What we're trying to do is use microbes to take plastic and other inedible plant material and turn that into something that's nutritious," said Steve Techtmann, an environmental microbiologist and associate professor at Michigan Technological University.

The idea is to turn components of plastic into protein and other nutrients like fats and sugars.

If that sounds unpalatable to you, well, Tecthmann said he doesn't want to eat plastic, either.

"What we're trying to do is take that plastic and turn it into something totally different," he said.

Techtmann and his colleague Ting Lu of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were just awarded the 2021 Future Insight Prize by Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany. The prize of 1 million euros (about $1.18 million) will allow them to delve deeper into their research. 

Their process works by using microbes to break down the plastic completely.

"In the end, all we're left with is microbial cells," Techtmann explained. "And those cells are made up of a lot of the same things in the food we eat: proteins, lipids, sugars and vitamins." He said the resulting cells, once dried out, are a powder resembling brown sugar.

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The conversion process takes just about one day.

"I think [that's] pretty exciting because plastic in the environment can take years to break down and so the fact we can break plastics down in a day is pretty cool," he said.

But we're still likely years away from the process becoming scalable.

Techtmann and his fellow researchers envision the food product will initially be used as an emergency food supply as opposed to a consumer product found on grocery store shelves.