Plastic has dominated the packaging industry for its affordability, durability, and ease of manufacturing. However, its non-biodegradable nature has led to a critical issue known as plastic pollution, endangering both humans and aquatic life. To address this urgent concern, government bodies and environmental organizations are actively seeking greener alternatives. A promising solution lies in Molded Fiber Products (MFPs), which utilize biodegradable and renewable materials such as recycled paper, pulp fibers (e.g., sugarcane, bamboo), and agricultural biomass waste, rich in cellulose and lignin. Also composed of biodegradable cellulosic fibers, they can be recycled or decomposed through landfilling, thus resulting in minimal environmental impact.
The extraction of fibers from these materials involves two primary methods:
1. Mechanical Pulping
The initial step of the process involves introducing hot water into a pulper containing fiber, allowing the fiber to absorb the water and undergo swelling. This will lead to break up of fiber into pulp, followed by the refining of the obtained mixture. One of the advantages of mechanical pulping is that it yields higher pulp output than chemical pulping because it does not break down fibers as much as chemicals do.
2. Chemical Pulping
Chemical pulping is primarily employed when working with virgin fibers to eliminate lignin, the substance responsible for binding the fibers together and causing a yellowish tint in the end products. The objective of removing lignin through chemical pulping is to enhance the strength and appearance of the final products.
Stages in MFP Manufacturing
The manufacturing of MFPs comprises of two major processes:
1. Pulp Preparation
During pulp preparation, fibers obtained from various sources after the pulping process are mixed with hot water, facilitating their hydrodynamic disintegration. The resulting pulp undergoes refining processes, with recycled pulp requiring more extensive refining to eliminate impurities.
Generally, recycled pulp serves as the base material for MFPs to reduce costs, and to improve the quality of finished products, virgin fibers are mixed in after re-pulping and refining.
This process involves injecting the pulp into pre-defined molds to achieve desired geometries and shapes. A dewatering process follows, ensuring the MFPs retain adequate moisture content for strength and quality preservation.
However, the current manufacturing process is still in its early stages, demanding considerable research and development. Key areas of focus include enhancing water resistance and stiffness of MFPs, as well as reducing energy consumption in the drying phase. Despite these challenges, the overall sustainability achieved through Molded Fiber Products outweighs any shortcomings.