Technological watch

Are bioplastics the answer?

Kevin Porter, technical director of Tecman Advanced Healthcare Products, clears the air on bioplastics misconceptions.

× Simon Townsley

A Covid-19 patient at the Royal Brompton Hospital AICU (Adult Intensive Care Unit) in London receiving ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) treatment. It is a rare last resort for patients who, even after ventilation, have blood oxygenation levels too low to sustain them. Blood is drawn from the body, oxygenated artificially and then returned.

I’ve long been fascinated by how we can use new materials and exploit their properties to do things better and more sustainably across the healthcare sector.

At Tecman, we focus on product design and advanced material technology, so we regularly undertake R&D activity to design and develop more sustainable medical products. The challenge in healthcare is to ensure that innovation that improves product sustainability does not compromise functionality or result in a loss of quality, which many are concerned is usually the case.

Barriers to bioplastics

Bioplastic is plastic manufactured from plant or other biological material.

It could be created from corn starch derivatives, trees, cellulose, or another raw material and has a very low carbon footprint compared to traditional oil-derived alternatives.

In our own field, face shields play an important role in a variety of healthcare settings. They offer greater flexibility and comfort, and an additional layer of protection atop of facemasks. But, no surprise, they are almost entirely made of plastic.

From a manufacturing point of view, the use of bioplastic materials is undoubtedly better for the planet but is not without its challenges.

Recycling in healthcare works differently to other industries because of the need to safely manage hazardous waste.

This complication to what can be processed is further challenged by the fact that some Trusts recycle themselves, whereas others outsource it. This results in a myriad of different regional and local approaches to what is and what is not sustainable.

One reason there has not been uptake of more bioplastic-based products is because of confusion by officials as to whether bioplastic products are biodegradable. The Department for Health and Social Care argues biodegradable products can’t be recycled because of the difficulty involved in separating them within existing waste streams, but it is important to point out that biobased products are not the same as biodegradable products and can be disposed of within regular waste streams.

Seizing the opportunity

Bioplastics offer a third way between single use products and biodegradable ones. They are more sustainable and less carbon intensive than the former, but unlike many of the latter, can be recycled and disposed of via existing waste streams.

One major way to make plastic products more sustainable is through material innovation. Selecting the right material given a specific design challenge is difficult, but by adopting new technologies and processes and exploiting the properties of excellent materials like bioplastic, manufacturers can help bring down carbon emissions significantly and ultimately the commercial elements improve too.

In something as straightforward as a face shield, the use of biomaterials can reduce plastic use by 90%, so the opportunity to make a seismic difference if this was used across the medical device arena is there for the taking.

Preventing hospital acquired infections (HAIs) is a major reason for the use of disposable products in healthcare, and so we are unlikely to see a move to most items becoming reusable. The World Health Organisation estimates that high-income countries generate an average of 0.5kg of hazardous waste per hospital bed, per day.

The focus going forward for many healthcare organisations will be on implementing reusable products where possible, but otherwise looking to sourcing more sustainable single use products, particularly where HAIs are a present risk.

Bioplastics aren’t appropriate in every situation, with moulding behaviour, moisture stability issues and higher cost often preventing them from like-for-like replacing all existing plastic injection moulded devices. But they are incredibly versatile and should always be a key consideration for new product developments. I am confident that in the near future we will see

the adoption and use of more biomaterial products, so that we can continue improving health outcomes in an increasingly sustainable way.      

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Publication date: 14/09/2022

Medical Plastics News


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.