Event report

March 31, 2024

Plastic waste could be so delicious – talk report on Guilty Flavours

David Willoughby

Freelance Writer

Recycled plastic products are meant to feel good. What could be better for the environment than keeping all that plastic out of the ocean or landfill? The plastics industry couldn’t agree more. It spends heavily on campaigns to push plastic recycling and keep consumers hitting that like button. But this is mostly a diversion tactic: 90% of plastic just isn’t economical to recycle, while the small percentage that does get recycled ends up as a lower quality, more toxic material. Plus, we only have space at home for so many recycled plastic chairs and shoes. What if we could make all that plastic disappear forever instead. What if we could just… eat it.

Guilty Flavours was on exhibition at the crQlr Awards Exhibition TOKYO: New Relationship Design

On display at FabCafe during March 2024, Guilty Flavours is the world’s first food made from plastic waste. A vanilla ice cream flavoured with vanillin derived from PET, Guilty Flavours is not yet approved for human consumption, so it sits for now in a locked and refrigerated display case. Depending on your outlook – whether you’re techno-optimistic, nature-loving, or artistically inclined – your initial reaction might be that of a potential scientific breakthrough, a seriously misguided experiment, or a deliberate provocation aimed at changing the way we think about plastic waste.

Eleonora Ortolani is the artist and material designer behind Guilty Flavours. She developed the concept as part of her MA in Material Futures at London’s Central Saint Martins, which included working with a biotechnologist from the University of Edinburgh on the process of breaking down PET polymers and transforming them into vanillin using specially engineered bacteria. At an event co-hosted by FabCafe Tokyo and BioClub Tokyo, Eleonora explained her process as an artist, the difficulties she faced engaging the scientific community, and why she’s had to get used to being the target of occasional threats and abuse.

Eleonora told the audience in Tokyo how the idea for Guilty Flavours was born of frustration. As she saw it, too many material designers were doing things with plastic waste, without really considering the underlying issues. She uses the term “guiltless plastic” to describe the false sense of mitigation these objects afford. Masquerading as a solution, they allow us to justify our overconsumption of plastic.

On the one hand, it postpones the moment when the plastic is going to end up in landfill. On the other hand, it usually involves mixing plastic waste with other virgin materials, which can create other problems. Plastic is not UV-resistant, so eventually it’s going to break and end up in landfill anyway. Sometimes these objects can be great, but they shouldn’t be sold as a solution to plastic waste.

Our addiction to plastic is easy to understand. It’s an incredible material: endlessly malleable, easily sanitised, cheap and durable enough for most product life cycles. Plastic is a polymer and Eleonara suggests we visualise it like a pearl necklace. Smaller particles called monomers are bound together in a chain, the length of which helps to determine the qualities of each plastic. When we talk about “breaking down” plastic – which is the process used in Guilty Flavours – what we really mean is breaking the polymer chain to release the monomers. These monomers – typically simple organic compounds – are not the same as microplastics, which are tiny fragments of the original polymer chain.

Plastics are only made possible by human processes, so we tend to perceive them as non-natural materials that must be eliminated – or at least secured – in order to maintain the natural state of the world. Eleonora began to question this view when she came across ecological thinker Timothy Morton’s theory of hyperobjects. These are objects so widely distributed in time and space – think of radiation and climate change – that solving or eliminating them becomes impossible. Instead, hyperobjects require a new way of thinking about nature.

Humans easily perceive plastics as not part of nature, but I started researching how many species are already using plastic and learning to coexist with it. From birds’ nests to super-dense plastic “rocks” found on coastlines, a full ecosystem is growing around plastic waste. Ideally, we should stop producing plastic, but this seems impossible at the present time. So instead, we need to change our perspective and start seeing plastic as part of a new nature.

Other starting points for Eleonora’s research included the work of Dr Hamid Ghoddusi from London Metropolitan University, who studies how microorganisms have adapted to digest plastic. There was also the Zophobas morio “superworm” that can digest styrofoam, and the discovery near a plastic bottle recycling facility in Osaka of the Ideonella sakaiensis bacterium that has evolved naturally to digest PET. It’s sometimes said that in nature there’s no such thing as waste. The waste of one living organism becomes food for another, even when that waste happens to be plastic.


What happens when an artist’s way of reasoning – explore a concept to see where it might lead – meets the scientific method? Eleonora knew that worms were digesting plastic and that the human body is filled with bacteria and enzymes. But when she tried to interest biologists in the idea of making human-edible plastic waste, she was met with unanimous rejection and in some cases strong rebuke. That was until she was introduced to Dr Joanna Sadler from the University of Edinburgh.

Joanna was doing similar research in her lab: plastic depolymerisation using digestive enzymes. After breaking down PET, she was using engineered bacteria to create vanillin molecules – but without the intention of making food. These bacteria synthesise enzymes which break down the monomers and then the bacteria excrete vanillin – yes, they poop it out. But you need a lot of bacteria to produce a very small amount of vanillin.

Vanillin is the molecule responsible for the taste of vanilla. Any reasonable person would assume that vanilla comes from vanilla beans, but Eleonora tells us there are actually three sources of vanilla flavour on the market. One is vanilla beans. Another is the perfume ingredient and food additive castoreum, which is labelled as natural vanilla extract but is actually extracted from beaver anal glands. The last of the three is synthetic vanillin derived from our old friend crude oil, just like plastic itself.

Eleonora was able to make vanillin from a new kind of material: plastic

The significance of vanilla on an artistic level was immediate to Eleonora. Vanilla – even the word itself can mean simple or unthreatening – is closely associated with ice cream, something widely loved and universally understood. She knew that ice cream could serve as an international language for the statement she was hoping to make. The result of her collaboration with Joanna is Guilty Flavours. It looks like ice cream and smells like ice cream, but is there any difference in taste? Simply put, we don’t know yet. Nobody has tried it, not even the artist herself.

I wanted to try the ice cream at the end of my Central Saint Martins show, but I was advised not to by Joanna. For now, it’s kept in a locked freezer. You can smell it and touch it, but you can’t eat it. There’s a long testing process as it’s considered a completely new food – even though it’s the exact same vanillin molecule and we’re already eating something similar derived from crude oil.

The locked freezer itself then has symbolic value. For the artist, it’s a sign of a concluded project, a finished work. It’s still possible to get the ingredient approved for human consumption and commercial release. After all, synthetic vanillin from crude oil is already part of our diets. But Eleonora herself has no intention of going down that road. Her aim was to make a statement, to demonstrate the possibility. Any further development, she says, is a decision we should all take together. Note the pleasing contrast with the hype-as-standard profit motive of your average biotech startup.

Eleonora then fielded questions from BioClub Tokyo members and other attendees.

Q. Would this work for other food ingredients besides vanillin?

“Engineering a bacteria means you change a bit of the DNA to make them do something else, in this case make them process a certain enzyme. If you know the molecule you want to have at the end, you can reverse-engineer it. In this case it was vanillin, but for example you could get proteins instead. It also depends on the material you start with. PET breaks down into two compounds. One of these is terephthalic acid, the main component of which is carbon, the basis of life. So we’re effectively throwing out carbon, which is energy. You can do something else with it.”

Q. But why make it human-edible?

“I didn’t want to find a solution for plastic waste in general. I wanted to demonstrate that you can do whatever you want with plastic. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum from plastic is human food, so this was a way for me to push that critique and make it stronger. Another reason for making it human-edible is that for a long time we’ve used animals for testing while putting humans at the top of the pyramid. We as humans cause the majority of climate change and eating meat is a huge part of that. What if we could make another kind of change by eating? Food is both a weapon and a tool to make a difference. Changing how we eat changes everything.”

Q: What reactions have you received? And how much do you think you can change people’s mindset?

“A lot of science is happening right now around food. But there’s a huge gap between what’s happening in the lab and what common people understand about it. Every time I talk about this project, I realise just how much we don’t know about basic things like the structure of plastic, the difference between microplastics and monomers, and the difference between breaking down plastic chemically and breaking it physically. The important thing for me is to make people talk about things they wouldn’t normally talk about. Of course it’s disturbing, I got so many threats. It makes people angry. But it works because people can then get more information and change their perspectives about food. Whenever something that the general public doesn’t understand is communicated through art, it creates a completely different space for conversation.”

Guilty Flavours featured in the crQlr Summit and crQlr Awards Exhibition held at FabCafe Tokyo in March 2024. For more on those events, see our full report


  • David Willoughby

    Freelance Writer

    David thinks and writes about sustainability, technology and culture, and has reported on many of our hackathons, talks and other events. He also works with Japanese companies to help tell their stories to the world.

    David thinks and writes about sustainability, technology and culture, and has reported on many of our hackathons, talks and other events. He also works with Japanese companies to help tell their stories to the world.

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