Healthcare plastic waste amounts to 1.25 million tons per year. Due to strict regulations and a growing consumer preference for eco-friendly plastic, there is a growing need for sustainable packaging. As a result, the biodegradable plastic packaging market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 17% from 2022 to 2030.

ARC Future Fellow A/Prof. Jin Zhang and Scientia Professor Chun Wang from UNSW Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and ARC Laureate Fellow Professor Cyrille Boyer from UNSW Chemical Engineering are partnering with Ecopha Biotech to develop biodegradable plastic packaging products. The project, led by Ecopha Biotech and supported by Santevation and Refresh Waters, was awarded a $3 million grant over the next 3 years by the Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P), Round 14.

From left to right: Mr Dave Fleming, A/Prof Jin Zhang, Mr Wilson Ling (Ecopha Biotech), Prof. Cyrille Boyer and Scientia Prof. Chun Wang

From left to right: Mr Dave Fleming, A/Prof Jin Zhang, Mr Wilson Ling (Ecopha Biotech), Prof. Cyrille Boyer and Scientia Prof. Chun Wang

The initiative, entitled “Innovative Development of Biodegradable Healthcare Packaging Products” aims to develop a new generation of green healthcare packaging products using biodegradable polymer polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), specially fermented from canola oil. The new products will replace traditional healthcare packaging products made from petroleum-based plastics to offer safety, high performance, and sustainability.

“Petroleum-based plastics cause a lot of waste and environmental pollution, as we can’t get rid of it for a very long time. The PHAs can degrade completely, so it’s a great option to protect the environment while still being able to use plastic products,” says A/Prof Jin Zhang.

Despite the superior physical and mechanical properties of PHAs compared to polylactic acid (PLA) and their great potential in medical applications, economically viable technologies for producing medical-grade PHA biodegradable polymers do not currently exist. Moreover, most PHAs typically exhibit brittle characteristics, physical aging issues and inadequate mechanical performance, rendering them unsuitable for healthcare packaging.

The UNSW research team aims to address these limitations by combining and functionalizing PHA biodegradable polymers with additional materials like biopolymers, bioactive substances, nanofillers, and synthetic compounds.

“Modifying the PHAs will enhance the mechanical properties such as tensile strength and elongation at break, thermal stability and liquid and gas barrier properties,” says Scientia Professor Chun Wang.

The UNSW team will work with the industry partners to develop customer tailored prototypes to ensure safe and high performing Sustainable Healthcare Packaging (SHP). These new SHP products are applicable to markets such as drug delivery, pharmaceutical, diagnostics, and orthopaedics, and will contribute significantly to clean up healthcare plastic waste.

As such, the project closely aligns with the Government’s Circular Economy strategy, which includes the priorities “Reduction or Elimination of Waste” and “Phasing out Unnecessary and Problematic Plastics and Packaging”.

“As the global healthcare sector continues to grow at a significant rate, it intensifies the urgent need for sustainable and biodegradable packaging materials. Our project will offer a paradigm shift in healthcare packaging, addressing the critical issue of plastic waste, and contributing to the protection of our planet,” say A/Prof Jin Zhang and Prof. Cyrille Boyer.