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Molded fiber (also known as molded pulp) has long had a presence in select applications in the packaging sector. With molded fiber’s use of recovered paper in its production, the material can make a case for itself in an era of increased corporate attention to sustainability.

Other obstacles have presented themselves in recent history and the path forward for molded fiber, however. The International Molded Fiber Association (IMFA), New York, had considered a lack of research into tooling to improve the production capacity of the material as one hurdle for the molded fiber sector to clear.

In October, IMFA and technology firm HP announced an advancement in tooling the two organizations say will brighten the prospects for the packaging material. (See the sidebar, “New tools for a new era,” below.)

IMFA and its member companies also are aware the sector has a reliance on recovered fiber grades that are increasingly hard to find. It is a problem that could require research and experimentation as a response.

Sustainable before it was cool

A process to make molded pulp was patented in 1903, according to industrial engineering professors Renee Wever and Diana Twede. The material initially was layered with paperboard in some applications before finding niches in the production of egg cartons and takeout beverage trays. According to a 2007 presentation by Wever and Twede, “after being restricted to [these] niche markets,” the market share of molded fiber “has increased as it is perceived as [an] environmentally friendly material.”

On its website, the IMFA lists plates and bowls at cafeterias and takeout restaurants; trays for berries and other produce; interior, protective packaging for consumer electronics goods; horticultural trays and pots; industrial protective packaging in the automotive sector; and single-use medical applications, such as bedpans, among the additional markets.

This summer, international spirits producer Diageo introduced a whisky bottle made from molded pulp. The bottle was produced by United Kingdom-based Pulpex Ltd. with backing from a London-based investment group named Pilot Lite.

Pilot Lite’s Co-Founder Sandy Westwater said at the time of the bottle’s debut, “By working together, we can use the collective power of the brands to help minimize the environmental footprint of packaging by changing manufacturing and consumer behaviors.”

In a 2020 report examining the current landscape of the molded pulp sector and its prospects for the decade ahead, United Kingdom-based Future Market Insights writes, “Being an eco-friendly and biodegradable packaging type, molded fiber packaging has emerged as an ideal solution for both primary and secondary packaging in food and beverage and consumer durable electronic goods.”

The report, titled “2020 Analysis and Review: Molded Fiber Pulp Packaging Market by Product,” considers the future of molded pulp, with its recycled paper content, in an era of increased scrutiny of nonbiodegradable plastics.

“As both packaging manufacturers and end-users stress employing packaging solutions that are sustainable, environment friendly and cost-effective, they are opting for molded fiber pulp packaging,” the authors of the Future Market Insights report posit.

The sustainable packaging option does not come, typically, at an added cost, the authors add.

“Molded fiber pulp is manufactured using recycled paperboard and newsprint, which makes it more affordable than conventional variants such as expanded polystyrene, vacuum-formed polyethylene terephthalate and polyvinyl chloride. On this premise, molded fiber pulp packaging aids in cost-optimization during shipping and transportation,” the report states in its introduction.

With more corporations seeking to placate the segment of the public seeking nonplastic packaging options, the table seems set for molded fiber to continue to gain market share in the new decade.

Molded fiber’s own sustainability credentials, however, will depend in part on manufacturers’ access to the recycled paper that allows the packaging material to tout its environmental friendliness.

Maintaining a high-fiber diet

Each of the past two years, paper recycling and sustainability consultants from Atlanta-based Moore & Associates have prepared presentations on the state of the scrap paper markets most pertinent to IMFA member firms as part of its annual seminar.

According to the 2020 presentation by that company’s principal Bill Moore among the grades molded fiber producers seek out first are over-issue news (OI), sorted clean news (SCN), white blank news (WBN) and, in some cases, sorted residential paper and news (SRPN).

Paper recycling firms and, in the case of SRPN, material recovery facility (MRF) operators, can identify each of these grades as rapidly diminishing in volume as North Americans—and people in most other parts of the world—read fewer newspapers.

Some types of molded fiber also can use brown grades, such as No. 11 and No. 12 old corrugated containers (OCC) and double-lined kraft cuttings (DLK). The supply scenario for two of those grades is comparatively encouraging, though No. 12 OCC could fade without mills in China as buyers.

The disappearance of the news grades can be seen in global recovered paper consumption figures Moore provides. His data indicate in 2008, 13 percent of scrap paper consumed consisted of news grades. By 2018, that percentage had dwindled to just 6 percent.

Printing and writing scrap paper, another white grade, shrank from 7 percent of the global total to just 4 percent from 2008 to 2018, according to Moore’s figures.

Perhaps the better news for scrap paper buyers at molded pulp mills is that newsprint mills worldwide increasingly have turned away from recovered fiber as a feedstock. Newsprint producers used scrap paper as more than 60 percent of their furnish in 2008, but by 2018 that figure had plunged all the way to 4 percent, according to Moore’s figures.

However, the news grades are not going unwanted. “Cartonboard and boxboard furnish [now] has significant newspaper grade content,” Moore says. Thus, he continues, the “supply-short nature of the higher quality recovered newspaper grades will keep bottom of the cycle prices higher than historical performance.”

Moore says COVID-19 is adding yet one more source of decline in ONP generation. Declining advertising means thinner newspapers. Also, some former readers had the habit of visiting newsstands broken when they stayed home because of the pandemic.

In his presentation, Moore suggests some alternatives to ONP for consideration by molded pulp producers, most of which can help the sector retain its sustainability credentials.

A sustainable way forward

Among potential feedstock sources are harvested materials, such as bamboo and agricultural residues such as wheat straw or sugar cane stalks.

These materials score as biodegradable, and in many cases could be certified as sustainable, but would not necessarily provide the positive public relations associated with the recycling chasing arrows stamp.

On the recovered fiber side, Moore lists shredded, debinded book pages; undeliverable postal mail; boxboard cuttings; and “other uncoated mechanical fiber printing scrap” as potential ONP substitutes.

He says some molded pulp facilities could choose to outsource their pulp production, purchasing recycled- content pulp made at other facilities, tapping into the “market pulp” sector.

In the 2019 presentation to IMFA, conducted by Moore & Associates’ Susan Cornish, a growing “level of interest” and investment in the production of recycled-content market pulp is listed among the opportunities for producers to maintain their commitment to recycling.

Finding alternative grades or buying recycled-content pulp also continues an easy-to-communicate sustainability message to corporate end-users, Cornish said in her presentation. “Sustainability and sustainable packaging goals are with us to stay,” she told IMFA in 2019. “Molded fiber is made from recycled material and it can be recycled.”

Among the sustainability challenges for molded fiber are the lack of a widely recognized sustainability or circular economy certification, she added, and inconsistency in collection and sorting of molded fiber products at MRFs and other recycling plants.

The better news, Cornish said, is that molded fiber is “easy for consumers to recognize” as “a paper product” and “in a strong position to be marketed as sustainable packaging.”

In an era when many competitive packaging materials are under the microscope because they are having difficulty confirming their sustainable status, that is a desirable place to be for molded fiber producers.

The author is senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.