Don’t Be Fooled

Molded fiber (also called molded pulp) versus PET plastic

(For the abridged version, click here.)

The City of San Diego could be banning foam meat trays, and that has sent retailers and food processors alike scrambling for an eco-friendly alternative. In fact, more than 200 cities, counties, and communities (as well as a few states) have already banned foam used in other applications – and foam meat trays are sure to follow.

At first glance and without research, one may be inclined to believe that “molded fiber” SOUNDS like the best option. But there is a reason why the City of San Diego deems molded fiber packaging as “NOT PREFERRED.”

Not all plastics are equal

Many marketing campaigns tout molded fiber trays as extremely eco-friendly. They speak about its compostability and how it’s biodegradable, all while claiming it’s better for the environment than any type of plastic. But, you must remember: NOT ALL PLASTICS ARE EQUAL.

And molded fiber is often not the best option. The City of San Diego recognizes this, which is why recyclable plastic is listed as a PREFERRED alternative, and molded fiber is not. In fact, many experts agree that #1 PET recyclable plastic is actually more eco-friendly than molded fiber, and this blog will go into the “why” behind these assertions.

What is molded fiber?

Before we jump in, let’s define molded fiber that’s typically used for food trays. This type of molded fiber is usually made from several different materials, including paper, bagasse (made from sugarcane), and bamboo. And molded fiber requires water. Lots and lots of water.

How does molded fiber work with meat or other purge-producing products?

Because of its water component, molded fiber has a tough time maintaining its structural integrity when it’s used for moist products – especially products that produce purge. To assist with the moisture, molded fiber food trays often require liners, coatings, or binding agents. The result: you now have a package that likely cannot be composted, biodegraded, or recycled. And if the molded fiber package claims to be compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable, real-world testing has shown that it often does not maintain its shape when confronted with product purge, making it not functional. In fact, there are ONLY 134 industrial facilities nationally that accept molded fiber products, and such a facility is required for the packaging to degrade properly. So, unless you feel like driving – and driving far – chances are it will end up in a landfill where it will live for many, many years.

Let’s break down the three most popular materials into a little more detail:

Trees

Molded fiber made from trees should be every environmentalist’s nightmare as “pulp/paper is the third largest industrial polluter to air, water, and land in the United States.”

This type of packaging significantly contributes to deforestation, which is one of the top environmental problems today. More than two billion trees are now logged every year for packaging alone. Now, imagine the resources and time required to grow just one tree! And, did you know that there is currently a shortage on lumber? We go through this periodically, and the pandemic has magnified the issues. Costs are going up, and delays are occurring. Why should we turn to a packaging material that further exacerbates this issue?

Also, did you know approximately three gallons of water are required to make one sheet of paper? And, by the time the process is complete, the water that was used is often tainted by various chemicals, which can pollute the water system and environment as a whole.

View more stats and facts about paper being eco-UNfriendly here.

Lastly, and this is more of a nuisance than anything, if you freeze a product in a molded fiber tray, the packaging tends to stick to the product.

Bamboo

If the packaging is made out of bamboo, then that bamboo is imported, which increases its carbon footprint and raises prices (sometimes making the packaging cost prohibitive). There is a recent push to farm bamboo in the States, but that would take food-producing land now utilized as farmland or orchards and convert it to land for non-edible products. Haven’t we learned our lesson with corn-based packaging (PLA), where we deplete the nutrients on farmland, food costs go up, and the world’s poor population is thus impacted?

Bagasse (sugarcane)

Bagasse must be imported from tropical areas, which increases costs and carbon footprint. In addition, many composting facilities will not accept bagasse packaging, so it is sent to the landfill where it negatively impacts global warming by releasing methane gas.

What are PFAS and PLA?

As mentioned, most molded fiber packaging products require a coating, liner, or binding agents – and many are coated with PFAS, which does not degrade naturally. PFAS is bioaccumulative and can be harmful to humans.

In addition, molded fiber products with PFAS were found to have an average of 1,670 ppm fluorine; BPI and Cedar Grove (third-party certification institutes) have now deemed that products with more than 100 parts per million (ppm) fluorine can’t be certified compostable and will not be accepted at BPI and Cedar Grove facilities. Molded fiber is well above that level!

If the package is not coated with PFAS, then it may be lined with PLA. PLA brings with it numerous other issues (a few of which are listed above). It will also contaminate the recycling stream if included with regular plastics, high-heat environments may cause it to be compromised, and it must be disposed of in an industrial composting facility (which, as mentioned, are few and far between!).

In summary

All this to say, do your research and make your decisions accordingly. You will likely find the following:

  • Not all plastics are equal.
  • Molded fiber may sound more eco-friendly, but it generally isn’t when you examine the whole process. It’s TRULY single-use, whereas recyclable plastic can be used again and again. It also often requires a high-heat facility to degrade properly, and there are only a few industrial composting facilities nationally that even accept molded fiber.
  • Molded fiber packaging tends to lose its form and functionality when showcasing products, impacting product protection and shelf appeal – two of the primary purposes of packaging.

No option is perfect. But many molded fiber marketing claims just don’t hold water – and that’s partially because molded fiber itself doesn’t hold water. PET plastic is easily recycled, preserves land for food crops, doesn’t kill trees or waste water, won’t get deformed, protects the product, and is visually appealing. It’s number 1 for a reason.