Why innovative molded fiber packaging needs chemistry

The packaging industry is challenged with the transition from traditional single-use plastics to renewable alternatives. With the help of chemistry, new types of molded fiber packaging provide solutions. With chemistry, molded fiber packaging can achieve the desired properties, such as water-repellency and durability, while maintaining recyclability and, above all, safety.

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The unseen hero for molded fiber packaging

Molded fiber has quickly emerged as the favored packaging choice for brands pursuing renewable and recyclable alternatives to replace single-use plastics – spanning diverse sectors from food and beverage to electronics, cosmetics, and e-commerce. Within this packaging revolution, chemistry plays a pivotal, but often unseen role. Without it, the creation of functional and sustainable cellulose-based molded packaging would not be possible.

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a round close-up of mr Simo-Pekka Vanninen from Kemira

Kemira also has vast knowledge on regulatory compliance and chemical safety topics in-house, which is crucial especially when dealing with food contact materials.

Simo-Pekka Vanninen,
Senior Manager, Applications and Marketing,  Kemira

Questions you might have

Molded fiber packaging, also known as molded pulp packaging or molded cellulose packaging, refers to a specific type of packaging material made from cellulose fibers. Molded fiber packaging is created through a process in which cellulosic fibers, originating from either recycled paper and board or virgin fiber sources like wood, bagasse, or bamboo, undergo transformation into a fiber mixture or slurry, where chemicals are added. This furnish is then molded into various shapes and sizes using specialized forming equipment and different processes.
Molded fiber is not new to the packaging market, but with developing technologies, it’s becoming more popular. Molded fiber products are typically categorized in 3 different types.

Thick-wall molded packaging is manufactured using a single mold and it is typically used for protective or supportive packaging of heavy items such as home appliances, furniture or automotive parts.

Transfer molded products are thinner and produced using one forming mold and one transfer mold. Typical uses for transfer molded packaging are egg and fruit trays, cup holders or protective packaging for e.g. electronic hardware. These packages typically have a smoother finish on the other side and on the other side, the surface is rougher.

Thermoformed or thin-wall molded fiber products provide the smoothest surfaces and well-detailed forms. They are manufactured using heated molds. This modern type of molded packaging is common in food service e.g., as bowls, coffee cup lids, and clamshell containers for take-away food or packaging for delicate high-end items such as electronics or beauty products.

A key advantage of molded cellulose packaging is its versatility: the molds utilized in the production process can be designed to create a diverse array of packaging items, accommodating a wide range of products.

Molded fiber packaging offers numerous benefits, making it an increasingly popular choice in recent years.

Much like traditional paper and board packaging, cellulose-based molded fiber packaging stands out for its sustainability. It is renewable, biodegradable, easily recyclable, and as such, aligns with the preferences of eco-conscious consumers and businesses striving to minimize their environmental impact. Molded cellulose packaging provides a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastics and materials like expanded polystyrene (EPS), ultimately helping to reduce reliance on nonrenewable fossil raw materials. Moreover, when manufactured from recycled fibers, it contributes to reducing the demand for virgin raw materials.

Another notable advantage of molded fiber packaging is its versatility. Molded fiber packaging is lightweight yet strong. It can take on various shapes and sizes, enabling a diverse array of packaging items and customization to fit the requirements of different products. Thick-wall molded fiber packaging, in particular, provides excellent protection and cushioning. The interlocked fibers create a sturdy structure that absorbs shocks and vibrations during transport. Molded fiber products with thinner walls find their application in areas such as food service packaging, with their smoother surfaces and well-detailed forms.

Furthermore, molded cellulose packaging is generally considered cost-effective. The production process is relatively straight-forward and requires fewer resources compared to some other packaging materials.

Molded fiber packaging aligns with sustainability goals on multiple fronts and can be considered a sustainable packaging option.

Molded fiber packaging derives from cellulose-based raw materials, such as recycled paper or virgin plant-based fibers. This origin makes it a renewable alternative to conventional packaging materials like petroleum-based plastic or foam. Molded fiber packaging is also biodegradable, meaning it undergoes a natural decomposition, helping to reduce the accumulation of waste in landfills. This mitigates the environmental footprint of packaging. In addition, molded fiber packaging is also suitable for the circular economy as they can be efficiently recycled to preserve the fiber raw material for reuse.

The production process of molded fiber packaging involves using water and heat to mold the fibers into the desired shape. This process is generally considered to be more energy-efficient than the production of some other packaging material, e.g. plastic or foam packaging. This reflects positively on the overall environmental impact of molded fiber packaging.

Additional aspect to sustainability can be found in molded fiber packaging’s adaptability to various product shapes and sizes. Due to its structure, it provides excellent protection for fragile items, ensuring safe transit of packaged products. This reduces the risk of damage and also minimizes the need for excessive packaging, further enhancing the packaging’s overall environmental profile.

Molded fiber packaging’s versatility makes it an ideal choice for a wide range of industries, offering sustainable and cost-effective packaging solutions.

Molded fiber packaging has found widespread use in the food and beverage industry, for instance as fiber trays and carriers. It is commonly used to package a variety of products, such as eggs, fruits, vegetables, and beverages. With advancement in production technologies, smoother and thinner molded cellulose options are emerging, making it increasingly a premium choice for the food service industry. Boxes, bowls, and clamshell packaging for take-away food are a few examples of its applications. Molded fiber packaging is typically microwave and oven-safe, providing convenience for consumers.

Molded fiber packaging is also used in the consumer electronics sector in safeguarding delicate electronic devices and accessories during transit. The packaging can be customized to fit the specific dimensions of the product and may include compartments for organizing product accessories. Molded fiber packaging is also gaining traction in the consumer goods industry, where it is used to package items like cosmetics, personal care products, and household goods. It offers a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic packaging, aligning with sustainability goals, and can be easily customized with branding and design elements, enhancing product visibility and appeal.

Yes, molded fiber packaging is well-suited for food service applications.

Traditionally, molded fiber packaging has been a trusted choice for protecting food and beverage products, due to its inherent rigidity. This packaging type’s shock absorption and cushioning qualities make it particularly well-suited to safeguarding delicate items such as glass bottles or fragile food items, such as eggs. Innovations in molded fiber production have enabled smoother surfaces and thinner walls in the packaging. These advancements have expanded its utility, making it an ideal choice for various food service applications. Molded fiber is increasingly used to create items such as take-away containers, bowls, trays, and clamshell packaging. In direct food contact, molded fiber products are made from virgin fibers to secure food safety.

Cellulosic materials don’t have a natural resistance against grease, moisture, and other substances, which are crucial in food service applications. Molded fiber packaging does require barrier technology to achieve the needed functionality. For instance, when used for take-out or fast-food items, resistance to grease is needed to prevent the packaging from becoming soggy or losing its integrity when in contact with foods. The application of barrier technology enhances molded cellulose packaging’s functionality and expands its suitability for a broader range of food and beverage applications.

Chemistry plays a crucial role in molded fiber packaging in several ways.

Firstly, chemistry is involved in the production of the molded fiber itself. Molded fiber packaging is typically made from cellulose-based materials, which can originate from recycled paper and board, agricultural waste, or virgin fiber sources, and chemistry is needed to break down and process these materials into a pulp. Chemical additives are often introduced to the fiber mixture to enhance its properties, such as strength, flexibility, and water resistance. Antimicrobial agents are utilized to ensure the hygiene and safety of fiber-based packaging, which is critical in food service applications.

During the molding process, chemistry comes into play in optimizing critical aspects of the process like dewatering and formation. Specialized chemicals can also be employed to prevent various operational and production issues, contributing both to the production efficiency and quality of the end product.

Another important role for chemistry in molded fiber packaging is the addition of special coatings or treatments to enhance the packaging’s functionality. For instance, chemicals can be introduced to make the packaging water and grease resistant. These barrier coatings can be applied to the molded fiber product using various techniques. It’s important that the chosen barrier technology is selected carefully to ensure that the functional properties it creates do not compromise the inherent recyclability and biodegradability of the cellulose-based packaging material.

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