Victoria University researchers have been investigating how reasonably priced and easily compostable packaging made from veggie waste like zucchini, broccoli, celery, and lettuce can help reduce the need for single-use plastics.
The work is being done as the Australian Government’s target for all packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025 nears.
The global market for “biopackaging,” or environmentally friendly food packaging, is expected to reach about $184 billion by 2026 as more countries impose plastic bans and as consumer awareness rises.
Dr Marlene Cran, an expert in polymers, and her team have been developing a remedy in the research labs at VU’s Werribee Campus, using leftover produce from a nearby Werribee South market farm.
The team used the leaves and stems of leftover or rejected produce that would otherwise have been used for animal feed or sent to landfills to create a variety of food packaging products.
In order to make the processes as natural, affordable, and simple to scale up in the future as possible, the team aims to use as few interventions as possible, such as intensive drying or using excessive additives.
Researchers from VU discovered that celery, with its high cellulose content, makes the perfect food tray, whereas lettuce, zucchini, and broccoli can be processed to create thick films that may be used as a tray insert or a produce separator.
Of partially dried waste materials, mycelium, the mushroom’s root structure, can be grown to create an excellent substitute for plastic-based styrofoam boxes.
Off-farm, the team is using starch leftovers from the protein extraction from yellow peas to make a flexible film that could replace plastic in a real circular economy.
“In future, there could be protein powders or dried peas sold in a bag made from the leftover starch sourced from the vegetables… inside the bag,” said Dr Cran. “That’s the dream.”
She claims that substituting sustainable natural products for disposable packaging just makes sense, despite the lack of industry-grade testing facilities and the cost of doing so.
VU’s project to create packaging made from veggie waste is funded by the Victorian Government’s higher education state investment fund.