Investigating the World of Molded Pulp Packaging: Trends, Technology, and Future Developments

Molded pulp fiber has played a role in packaging since the first US Patent for a Fiber Pulp Mold was established in 1903. However, for a long time its use had usually been relegated to egg cartons, drink trays, or industrial packaging materials. But in recent years, a vast array of molded pulp products have entered the market, with numerous retailers embracing molded fiber packaging for a plethora of food and consumer goods.

What has led to the growing prominence of molded pulp packaging around the world? How exactly are molded pulp products made? How sustainable is this form of packaging in the long-term?

This article will answer these questions and many others through a deeper look into the world of molded pulp packaging. Over the course of our analysis, we will determine how molded pulp packaging stacks up against more common alternatives such as polystyrene, and what differentiates various forms of molded pulp products from each other.

Manufacturing Molded Pulp Products

The manufacture of molded pulp starts with sourcing the right kind of input materials. In this case, the two primary inputs are fiber and water. The best fibers are materials that can easily be turned into a pulp and shaped to create a range of packaging designs. The original fibers used for molded pulp were derived from recycled paper and Kraft products, but more recent iterations can involve mixing a variety of materials such as bamboo, rice, and other plant-based sources.

Some important things to consider when sourcing the right materials are: how expensive is the harvesting process, how sustainable are they (i.e. biodegradability, renewability), and how effective are they for their intended use?

Once the right kinds of fiber are selected, they are combined with the second input, which is water. Both fiber and water are added to a giant “blender” where they are mixed together to create a pulpy slurry. At this point some companies add bleaches or additives to the mixture to improve the product’s aesthetics or function in some way. However, molded pulp manufacturers mindful of negative environmental impacts may avoid additives altogether to create products that are 100% natural. Ultimately, a final product that minimizes the number of chemicals it leaches into the environment will prove more sustainable in the long-term.

Once the pulpy slurry is created, it is added to a mold where it is subjected to heat, drying, and vacuuming. Some of the latest technology can create molded fiber that is dense, well-defined, and smooth, just like a typical piece of clear plastic. Common products made from molded pulp fiber include cups, food containers, plates, utensils, bowls, protective coverings, and cases.

Environmental Considerations: How Sustainable Is Molded Pulp Packaging? 

Since molded pulp packaging mainly relies on plant-based products, it is often considered a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based packaging such as plastic or polystyrene (styrofoam). A study conducted in the Journal of Food Additives and Contaminants found that one-quarter of the 125 tonnes of plastic produced each year is used for packaging purposes. Unfortunately, plastic can take thousands of years to biodegrade properly and much of it ends up in oceans, waterways, and natural habitats. Therefore, in comparison to plastic, molded pulp packaging offers a way to package food and goods without contributing vast amounts of plastic waste into the environment.

Furthermore, harvesting and manufacturing pulp fibers usually presents a relatively low environmental impact. For instance, using recycled paper and Kraft products extends the lifespan of products that would otherwise go to waste. Using plant-based materials means harvesting from renewable resources and creating a final product that is usually bio-degradable.

While a general comparison between plastic and molded pulp suggests that molded pulp is the more sustainable option, what about the variation amongst molded pulp fibers? Are some molded pulp products more sustainable than others?

When assessing the sustainability of various forms of molded pulp fibers, it is important to consider both the source materials and the additives used in the manufacturing process, as both of these elements can have considerable environmental impacts.

Although molded pulp that relies on tree-products may technically be utilizing a renewable resource, there are still important environmental considerations to make when harvesting trees. For instance, the removal of mass amounts of trees can seriously impact complex ecosystems that rely on them for nourishment, cover, and soil stability. Furthermore, trees act as important “carbon sinks” as they take in carbon from the air and replace it with oxygen.

Instead of trees, some molded pulp manufactures have turned to other rapidly-renewable plant resources. Some of these materials include bamboo, bulrush, rice, and wheatstraw, which can all be harvested without destroying large habitats or disrupting natural ecosystems.

Finally, it is important to consider whether or not bleaching agents have been the manufacture of molded pulp fiber. Some companies add bleach during the manufacturing process to give their products a whiter appearance. However, these additives affect the long term sustainability of the product, especially when disposed of improperly and increase the likelihood of causing environmental degradation.

Molded Pulp Products and their Uses

A discerning consumer may have noticed an increasing numbers of retailers embrace more eco-friendly forms of packaging. The use of eco-friendly fibers has become especially prominent in the food service industry as companies scramble to mitigate their ecological footprint and portray a “green” image to customers. More often than not, the more eco-friendly types of packaging that these companies embrace are forms of molded pulp packaging.

The technology behind molded pulp packaging has improved remarkably over the past five years, thus paving the way for more advanced applications of pulp fiber in food and drink packaging. One of the earliest uses for molded pulp was in fiber trays for carrying drinks. More recently, pulp fiber has been used for cups, food trays, and containers, as well as a number of more specialized applications such as sushi trays or clamshells.

Outside of the food industry, pulp fiber has been deployed in packaging consumer goods. Due to improvements in drafting technology, pulp fiber can be formed into a variety of shapes and sizes, suitable for a number of electronic applications. Pulp fiber has been used for the packaging of earphones, cell phones, and computers, just to name a few.

Conclusion: Trends and Future Analysis of the Molded Pulp Packaging Industry

Molded pulp products have expanded their reach in the packaging industry and are become more mainstream. In particular, many companies in the food industry are eager to embrace alternatives to petroleum-based forms of packaging due to government regulations and customer demand. Not only are food companies increasingly mindful of the amount of landfill waste they are responsible for producing, their customers are demanding more sustainable options for packaging and transporting their food. With two-thirds of all packaging waste attributed to food packaging, the need for more sustainable food transport options is of paramount importance in the food industry.

While voluntary measures have been an important reason for the growth in molded pulp packaging, regulatory measures have also had a big impact. Mindful of the growing environmental impacts of plastic and polystyrene (not to mention growing landfill waste), many jurisdictions have imposed bans on environmentally damaging forms of packaging. The list of cities banning plastics and polystyrene is growing every year, with the trend expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

Molded pulp products are no longer consigned to the periphery of the packaging world. Aided by voluntary measures and regulatory policies, molded pulp packaging is taking over both the food and consumer goods industries. While not all forms of molded pulp packaging are created equal, the trend is towards more sustainable forms of packaging as demand for eco-friendly products rises and government regulations strengthen.