Molded Fiber is Shaping the Future

By Keith Brazzell

Across all industries, consumers and B2B buyers are paying closer attention to where their products and packaging come from. Movements like Farm to Table and Shop Local have taken hold, but they’re no longer restricted to food and retail items. Decision-makers are asking tough questions about packaging and single-use disposable products. What are they made of? How are they manufactured? How do they impact the world we live in? What will happen to them after I’m done with them?

According to Nielsen surveys, 73% of consumers say they want to change their consumption habits to reduce their environmental impact, so offering a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastic and polystyrene foam makes sense. Consumers now want to be good stewards of resources and also choose local means over long-distance shipping and transportation.  Molded fiber is one option that is seeing significant growth today. Both enhanced manufacturing and new applications are positioning this material to shape the future of sustainable packaging.

What is Molded Fiber?

While there are plenty of innovations happening in molded fiber today, it is not a new product. People have been making molded fiber products for more than a century. Consumers are familiar with molded fiber products sold at retail, including grocery store egg cartons, as well as fast food drink carriers and many others. This selection has been rapidly expanding in modern times.

Historically, molded fiber has been made from wood pulp, but it can be made from many plant cellulose fibers. Most recently, renewable crops like switchgrass and biomass sorghum are being used. The properly selected crop is very productive on otherwise unproductive land. To make molded fiber, a fiber slurry is vacuum molded onto a screen mold, then two matching, heated molds are pressed to the screen, drying the fiber into the desired shape and finish. 

But while the egg carton might be the most readily familiar form of molded fiber, this versatile product is used in a surprising number of applications with a range of finishes and resilience. For example, the glossy insert trays inside the boxes new smartphones come in are often made from high-end molded fiber. Depending on the manufacturing process, it can be made with a look and feel that rivals or even exceeds that of plastic.

What Are the Benefits?

When businesses and consumers consider packaging or single-use products, they typically look for three things: cost, performance and sustainability. Even if a product is manufactured in a sustainable way, it still has to perform as expected and at a reasonable price point. Molded fiber, especially when produced domestically, fulfills all three points.

Molded fiber can be competitive with plastic and polystyrene foam when it comes to cost. You see these products alongside each other in the grocery store, the previously mentioned egg carton for example, without major price differences. Producing molded fiber products domestically can simplify what are typically complex import logistics systems. Additionally, domestic manufacturing reduces risk in that same supply chain.

Molded fiber is also comparable or superior in performance. This is vital because no matter what the price point or ethical standards behind it, packaging must still perform as expected to be viable. Advances in manufacturing and production have made competition possible, creating molded fiber products that can hold hot to-go food without leaking, for example.

Molded fiber, especially fiber produced domestically from renewable feedstock crops, has a lower carbon footprint and breaks down naturally in the environment. It can be composted or recycled. As the Nielsen survey shows, consumers overall are making choices about what to buy based at least in part on environmental concerns. Using plastic or polystyrene packaging could cost you customers on those grounds alone, so going with molded fiber instead is smart business sense.

What Does the Future Hold?

There are several trends that are influencing the future of molded fiber products and packaging. As mentioned previously, consumers are demanding alternatives to plastic and polystyrene packaging, and the market is responding. Because overseas sources of molded fiber are becoming more and more stressed, with more demand for molded fiber in those countries, we are seeing significant market growth for domestically produced fiber.

In lockstep with domestic growth, we’re seeing technological improvements and manufacturing improvements, making the process more efficient overall. This is important in keeping the price point low, overseas as domestic manufacturers compete with foreign labor and operational cost structures. Improvements in manufacturing mean that each employee is as productive as possible, making more units at a single station.

As the market for molded fiber continues to evolve, we will continue to see products and packaging that are stronger, smoother and better-looking, mimicking the feel and capability of plastic. Many retail products are moving away from the standard blister pack in favor of molded fiber. Other sectors like the medical industry are finding molded fiber replacements for single-use plastics.

As technology improves molded fiber is going to find more applications in surprising areas. Igloo, for example, recently expanded molded fiber into the sports and outdoors market with a molded fiber cooler. The product is high-performing and completely compostable and recyclable.

A Purchase to Feel Good About

Another aspect of domestically produced molded fiber products is their support of domestic agriculture. Molded fiber made from renewable crops directly supports America’s rural economies, giving farm businesses and other landowners a low-input, high-yield cash crop that they can count on. 

Consumers want to feel good about the products they buy. At the very least, they don’t want to feel guilty about the waste those products generate. Molded fiber packaging and single-use products remove a pain point for consumers, letting them enjoy and even feel proud of their purchases. That consumer-driven push towards sustainability will certainly fuel years of exciting innovation in the industry.

Keith Brazzell is COO of Genera Inc., a Tennessee-based agricultural fiber product manufacturer. Partnering with local farmers, Genera is launching production of its Earthable® line of food service and packaging products, providing a sustainable farm-to-finished product solution to turn agricultural crops and residues into a wide array of sustainable, renewable and compostable fiber products people use every day. Keith has more than 25 years of experience in food, energy, industrial and biochemical processing.