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Molded Pulp Packaging Emerges as an Alternative to Single-Use Plastic in the Transition to Packaging Sustainability

Molded Pulp Packaging Emerges as an Alternative to Single-Use Plastic in the Transition to Packaging Sustainability


December 5th, 2022

Molded pulp packaging solutions continue to gain favor among eco-conscious consumers and businesses looking to minimize the impact of the packaging sector on environmental health.

Over the past decade, consumers have become more cognizant of the long-term implications of their purchase behavior. Modern shoppers put significant thought behind their purchases, in terms of where are how to spend their money. In the current era, with concerns mounting regarding environmental well-being, this awareness is mainly directed towards packaging sustainability. According to Trivium’s 2021 Global Buying Green Report, over 83% of younger consumers (aged 44 and under) have expressed a willingness to pay higher process for products that use sustainable packaging.

With the packaging industry coming under increasing scrutiny in recent years, solutions like molded pulp packaging have become an appealing choice for industries looking to mitigate their environmental footprint. Repurposed from fibrous materials, such as recycled cardboard and paper or natural fibers like bamboo, wheat, or sugarcane, pulp-based packaging is highly recyclable, with the ability to be reused up to 7 times after fulfilling its primary purpose. Additionally, molded pulp, unlike conventional plastic-based packaging is biodegradable, which allows for a reduction of virgin materials used in the production of packaging products.

Traditionally associated with packaging items like cup holders or egg boxes, molded pulp-based packaging solutions are gradually gaining traction across industrial sectors like automotive, horticulture, medical and more. With massive improvements to molding processes and technologies and the growing demand for sustainable and high-quality packaging, molded pulp is making significant headway as a solution for luxury packaging. According to a Global Market Insights Inc. report, molded pulp packaging market size is set to surpass USD 4.8 billion by 2028.

3 major molded pulp packaging industry collaborations driving sustainability in North America

Bolstered by its compostable and recyclable nature, pulp-based packaging is rapidly emerging as the catalyst for the shift of eco-conscious business entities from current non-renewable plastic packaging to more sustainable options.

This shift is especially apparent in North America, where the molded pulp packaging industry is poised to be valued at USD 1.17 billion by 2028, as per Global Market Insights Inc. estimates, on account of the burgeoning demand for sustainable materials and packaging solutions in the region.

As a result of this, several packaging manufacturers are becoming involved in strategic maneuvers, most prominently collaborative efforts with other entities, to create more scope for innovation and development in molded pulp-based packaging, and in turn, strengthen their own market presence.

University of Maine-Kiefel alliance advances molded pulp packaging development through new thermoforming technology

Natural fibers are emerging as ideal materials for sustainable packaging products of late. In recognition of this, various public-private partnerships are being forged by major entities to boost research activities in the field, especially with regard to pulp-based packaging. Kiefel, in particular, is working persistently to establish a strong network of research and material facilities for the molded pulp packaging industry worldwide.

In February 2022, the firm collaborated with the University of Maine to promote the development of molded pulp packaging solutions, with the installation of a new NATUREFORMER KFT Lab machine, which would allow students to experiment with fiber thermoforming technology and enhance R&D efforts pertaining to sustainable materials like cellulose nanofiber.

By leveraging fiber thermoforming technology, Kiefel machines were equipped to produce sustainable packaging products made from natural fibers such as annual plants, straw, or cellulose, which would represent an attractive alternative to traditional plastic-based packaging in major application sectors.

Ara Partners’ Genera Energy Inc. acquisition to address the need for locally-produced pulp-based packaging

With the population of eco-conscious consumers on the rise, North American businesses are ramping up their efforts to boost sustainability in their packaging options, with a keen focus on enhancing domestic production. To that end, in June 2022, Ara Partners, a PE firm with expertise in industrial decarbonization investments, announced its acquisition of Genera Energy Inc., to facilitate the expansion of its sustainable pulp-based packaging business. Ara also declared a USD 200 million capital commitment toward the non-wood agricultural pulp and molded fiber producer

By working collaboratively, the management teams of both Genera and Ara sought to broaden the company’s manufacturing horizons across the U.S. in an attempt to cater to the ever-growing demand for sustainable molded fiber packaging sourced locally. Also, as part of the deal, Genera identified important growth opportunities in rural communities, by conserving land use whilst delivering a biodegradable and compostable solution to counteract the influence of an escalating plastic pollution issue.

ABB Robotics-Zume team up to explore use of molded fiber manufacturing cells (MFC) for production efficiency 

In recent years, packaging manufacturers have been under tremendous pressure, from both regulatory authorities and consumers alike, to develop or integrate more sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic in their portfolios. Plant-based pulp packaging, specifically, has become a key area of interest in this situation, demonstrating numerous benefits, from limited usage of energy and water to lesser CO2 emissions than plastic packaging manufacturing to biodegradability, among others.

The advent of next-gen technologies like automation robots equipped to accelerate production levels of such sustainable packaging products has become a key trend driving the molded pulp packaging industry toward efficiency through a reduction in energy use, production waste, and emissions.
A notable example of this is ABB Robotics, which inked a collaboration with Zume, a California-based supplier of compostable packaging solutions in November 2021, to deploy robotic cells that would elevate the latter’s sustainable packaging production to a global scale and limit the use of single-use plastics.

As part of the deal, ABB would install and incorporate over 1,000 MFCs (molded fiber manufacturing cells) and nearly 2,000 robots at Zume’s customer sites across the globe over the upcoming five years. Each site would be equipped to handle the processing of over 71,000 tons of agriculture material per year, and eventually produce more than 2 billion pieces of molded fiber packaging every year, empowered by the speed, scalability, and automation capabilities provided by the MFCs.

The packaging industry is evolving at a breakneck pace, which companies are working hard to keep up with, through a gradual transition from conventional plastics-dominated production processes to more ecologically responsible solutions. This trend is indicative of the strong hold that the molded pulp packaging industry has in the industrial landscape, as a strong proponent of the budding green movement that is poised to create a stir in the packaging ecosystem of the future.

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