molded fiber trays
Molded fiber, often made with scrap paper, has long been used to make takeout beverage trays.
Image courtesy of Huhtamäki Oyj.

New opportunities not pulp fiction

The sustainability movement and emerging technology are brightening prospects for molded pulp, says Joseph Grygny of the International Molded Fiber Association.

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December 11, 2020

Molded pulp has been a packaging choice in niche applications—most prominently egg cartons and takeout beverage carriers—for several decades.

The sustainability movement has created a growing market in the electronics shipping and packaging space for the material, which is often is made with scrap paper recycled content. Now, R&D in the molded pulp parts tooling has provided another reason for optimism among molded pulp producers.

In an interview with Recycling Today, Joseph Grygny, executive director emeritus of the New York-based International Molded Fiber Association (IMFA), comments on the material’s recent advances and the current and prospective role of scrap paper in the material’s production.

Recycling Today (RT): Why did the IMFA and its members identify tooling advances as an R&D priority that could bring ROI to the industry? What were the limitations of the existing tool methods?

Joseph Grygny (JG): For many years, the global molded fiber product manufacturers have used various methods of creating molds (tools) to produce saleable molded pulp (fiber) into packaging and other types of products (four cup drink carriers; food service plates etc.; egg packaging; industrial items; electronic products and household appliances. For the past 20 or more years and today, molds are produced using CNC machined forms, drilled with hundreds of small holes, and a fine metal screen usually cut into shapes and attached to the form. The holes in the form and the screen allow the water-based recycled fiber slurry to be separated for a fiber mat in the shape of the mold to be vacuumed formed. Therefore, the mold (tool) is a critical part of the molding operation. It is also labor-intensive, costly and time-consuming when a molder’s customer is asking for packaging. The new tooling technology developed by HP, using advanced forms of multijet fusion (MJF) [and] 3D printing, eliminates all machining, drilling and screening as well as increasing the efficiency of the molding operation and quality of finished products. Because of these new capabilities, molded fiber product manufacturers are able to better address their markets.

RT: What are some potential new applications for molded pulp or molded fiber that might result from the HP/IMFA research results?  How might existing applications be expanded or made more efficient?

JG: With the new HP Advanced Molded Fiber Tooling Solution, the operational efficiencies and features provide product to customers with significantly improved products faster and with less effort. It also gains position with respect to competitive packaging materials—and it lowers production costs. With the new tooling, the range of applications is expanded with molded fiber product feature capabilities, such as easy branding of packaging products.

RT: Recyclers associate molded fiber with the ONP (old newspapers) grade, a grade that is diminishing. Can ONP be replaced with abundant mixed paper in some molded fiber applications?

JG: Yes, in a fair amount of applications, mixed paper is and can be used. However, many molding machines, particularly the tooling, have problems with mixed paper and some have installed cleaning equipment to reduce these problems. Some molders, because of their tooling and process, need to use only ONP.

RT: What is your overall assessment of molded fiber market share in the packaging industry? Is it holding its own in an era where sustainability is considered an increasing priority by some decision-makers?

JG: The markets for molded fiber packaging products is exploding, primarily with those wanting to get out of using plastic materials for environmental reasons. Demand is high and molded fiber manufacturers have backlogs, as do molding machinery companies. There is a definite increase in the priority of packaging decision-makers for natural, environmentally sustainable packaging products, including molded fiber.