Turning plastic into food?

There are two big global problems that researchers hope to solve at the same time:  food shortages and plastic pollution.

The United Nations reports that as many as 811 million people worldwide are suffering from hunger.  The U.N. also reports that the world produces about 400 million tons of plastic waste every year.

But what if you could turn all of that plastic into food?  That's what a team of engineers, chemists, and biologists is trying to do.

"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," Techtmann said.

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

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.

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," Techtmann said.

But we're still likely years away from the process becoming scalable.  Techtmann initial goal is to deploy the system cheaply and easily in disaster areas or places experiencing food shortages.

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.