The Promise of Molded Fiber
Plastic is slowly going away but progress is plodding along and we need to do more, and fast, as we’re risking our health and the health of the earth, with every passing day. The answer is clear: we have to do better. One of the strongest alternatives out there, and bolstered by recent advances in technology, is all-natural, compostable, inexpensive, and versatile molded fiber. There are others, too, but for now, let's talk about molded fiber: what it is, what it’s not, and how it can benefit the earth.
A Quick History Lesson
This is not the first time that “new” products and technology have become widely adopted to replace inferior options, especially in the single-use “disposable” packaging space. It was not that long ago that restaurants would send you home with a polystyrene box (commonly and erroneously referred to as styrofoam, which is never used in food packaging). As petroleum-based plastics became cheaper, through technological innovation and design iteration that are essential to the continued evolution inherent in the manufacturing process, these plastics replaced polystyrene as the primary material for single uses in areas like those take-out food containers. They’re cheap, food-safe, and meet key functional requirements, but are wreaking havoc on the environment.
You’ll notice “new’ and “disposable” are in quotes. While both words are commonly used when talking about single-use materials these days, but neither one is exactly accurate in describing what molded fiber actually is. In fact, though the process of iteration and innovation we described regarding plastic, molded fiber itself has seen significant changes since its invention, widely considered to begin with a patent filed in 1903. When people refer to molded fiber as being a new technology, it only seems like it, as companies like Zume have streamlined and perfected the manufacturing process. Though it might seem like splitting hairs, the first plastic wasn’t patented until 1907, making molded fiber an older technology than plastic.
Plastic Isn’t Disposable
But plastic is cheap, and easy to mold and manufacture, so it took off as a medium. Take a look around you now and note how much plastic you see, including in your electronics, your food packaging, and if you’re not reading this in the bathroom (I won’t judge!), walk there now and look in your cabinet - virtually everything in healthcare uses plastics. A small percentage can be recycled. An even smaller percentage will actually get recycled.
To cut to it, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: plastic is bad for the environment [link to the Problem With Plastic blog]. It chokes our waterways and poisons our water. It gathers in massive flotillas of toxic islands in our oceans. We put it in our landfills, where it sits for thousands of years, simply taking up space, leaching chemicals into the ground. Plastic is only “disposable” in the sense that dirt we sweep under a rug is “cleaned up”--we’ve simply put it where we can’t see it, where it will continue to trouble our ecosystem for generations.
Molded Fiber to the Rescue
All is not lost. Just as plastic replaced polystyrene in single-use applications, molded fiber is poised to do the same to plastic. Though Zume began with face masks and food packaging, those are just the beginning of what molded fiber can do for us.
What is Molded Fiber Made Of? Where Does It Come From?
According to Steve Roberts, director of the source packaging group at Zume: “Molded fiber is typically described as any kind of natural fiber with cellulosic characteristics, which allows it to bond and form together.” Though wood pulp was the original source of most molded fiber, it has been replaced by plant materials like wheat straw, bamboo, sorghum, and others.
This is one of the biggest and best reasons to use molded fiber: It’s made largely using crop ‘waste.’ The raw materials used in its production are so widely available and, before now, often discarded. As crops are harvested, there is always a portion of material left behind that can’t be used for anything else. Every corn cob has a stalk, and every tomato has a vine, and molded fiber is where those byproducts can be used. So much agricultural waste is created in the United States that raw material for molded fiber is plentiful.
What’s So Great About Molded Fiber?
Plastic comes from petroleum, so we’re already off to a better start. Further, unlike plastic and polystyrene, molded fiber is compostable. Because it’s made from plant products, molded fiber is as natural as the ground it came from. You can put it right back there, or in your compost bin, where it will provide minerals to the composting process and live another life as the perfect growth material for new plants. Even if it does end up in a landfill, molded fiber won’t poison everything around it, but quickly degrade and revert to its original pulpy origins, taking up less space, and doing so in the cleanest way possible.
What is the Future of Molded Fiber?Companies like Zume have found molded fiber perfect for its first two offerings: face masks and food packaging. This is only the beginning. Advances in machine and prototyping technology mean that we are that much closer to competing with plastics on cost and functionality too. We’ll talk more about that in future posts. Keep an eye out for more blog posts on this topic and on our product pages for what else we’ve got in the hopper.