The environmental impact of molded pulp manufacturing
Investigating the destructive environmental effects from the supply and manufacturing of molded pulp packaging
The environmental impact of manufacturing molded pulp packaging – As the world gradually moves in the direction of environmentally sound solutions, companies desperately search for replacements for their outdated packaging materials. The sustainability movement continues to have a significant impact on the packaging industry, exposing unsustainable materials and promoting eco-friendly solutions.
The movement has waged war on straws, grocery bags, and single-use plastic items. Polystyrene (EPS) is the newest culprit, exposed as a carcinogen with serious health concerns and a damaging environmental impact. Many believe molded pulp to be a sustainable packaging alternative, due to its recyclability. However, the manufacturing process for molded pulp packaging actually has a dangerous impact on the environment.
Molded pulp manufacturing
The process of manufacturing molded pulp products begins with soaking wood fibers in water and mixing in chemical additives to generate pulp consistency. Next, the resulting material is shaped and formed using custom design tools. The wet pulp is then pressed, dried, and inspected for quality.
Molded pulp mills also use a process called chemical pulping to remove lignin from the wood fibers and increase the strength and water resistance of the material. Unfortunately, this process “produces a large amount of pollution” in the form of chemical emissions released into both the air and adjacent water sources.
Air, water, and land pollution
Molded pulp and paper represent the third largest industrial source of pollution to air, water, and land resources in the United States. Pulp mills emit a variety of chemical compounds into the atmosphere, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon dioxide. All of these represent hazardous greenhouse gases that cause acid rain and contribute to climate change. In fact, studies indicate that the molded pulp industry dumps 100 million kilograms of toxic waste every year into our environment.
Further, some molded pulp manufacturing plants use chemical bleaching to whiten the end product. This process releases chlorinated hydrocarbons, or dioxins, as chemical byproducts into the environment. According to the EPA, the pulp and paper industry ranks in the top four in the United States in the release of dioxins into the environment.
The danger of dioxins
Dioxins are highly toxic and extremely dangerous chemical compounds, recognized as human health risks and environmental pollutants. They are scientifically known as organochlorines, or chlorinated hydrocarbons, which puts them in the same category as other industrial chemicals and toxic pesticides, including the infamous DDT.
Their health risks are widely known and have been scientifically proven. They affect the immune system, interfere with hormones, and cause reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are also known to cause cancer. In fact, researchers in the 1970s nicknamed dioxin “the most potent animal carcinogen ever tested” – “the ‘Darth Vader’ of chemicals.”
Persistent environmental pollutants (POPs)
Scientists categorize dioxins as persistent environmental pollutants (POPs). This group of powerful toxins resist degrading naturally in the environment and instead build up over time, slowly infecting every aspect of an ecosystem.
What makes dioxins potent is their chemical stability, which allows them to build up in fat tissue and last for decades. Industrial contamination from paper and pulp manufacturing factories contaminates water sources, releasing organochlorines into the environment where they infect plants and animals.
These dioxins then gradually travel up the food chain, where they eventually end up in humans, often through the consumption of meat and fish products. There is a vicious cycle, where we poison ourselves by polluting the environment and the manufacturing of molded pulp is a critical offender.
Deforestation and climate change
Despite being labeled as eco-friendly packaging material, molded pulp packaging products are serious contributors to carbon emissions as a result of deforestation and the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Pulp and paper factories reportedly produced 35.7 million metric tons of CO2e in 2018, which represents only a small percentage as compared to power plants. However, molded wood pulp packaging contribute significantly to deforestation.
Deforestation is the second leading cause of climate change. Every year, companies destroy 18 million acres of the crucial natural ecosystems that produce the oxygen we breathe and combat climate change. Deforestation accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and simultaneously depletes the biosphere responsible for absorbing carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.
Via Environmental Paper Network’s 2018 “State of Global Paper Industry” Executive Summary
Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI)
Non-profit environmental organizations have taken it upon themselves to regulate and curtail the shocking ecological damages inflicted by deforestation from pulp and paper manufacturers. The Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) represents a certification standard that moderates the way companies utilize timber resources. Participating businesses avoid contributing to net deforestation by ensuring that their raw materials come from sustainably-sourced wood suppliers.
There is also a crucial distinction between natural corrugated packaging and chemically-altered molded pulp. Natural, brown corrugated board is recycled at an extremely high rate and involves an eco-friendly supply and manufacturing process, truly exemplifying a sustainable packaging material. In contrast, molded pulp packaging releases toxic chemicals during manufacturing and can complicate the recycling process.
Understanding the hidden costs to our environment
The environmental optimism surrounding molded pulp packaging relates solely to its recyclability. Unfortunately, this disregards the entire picture, which includes a sobering reality. The molded wood pulp manufacturing process releases toxic chemical byproducts into the environment. Packaging using molded pulp and paper resources also perpetuates the deforestation of millions of critically-important forest ecosystems that stand as the last defense against climate change.
At EPE we value the importance of understanding the entire life cycle of our packaging. That way we know that we provide environmentally sound packaging designs that are sustainably-sourced, that use reusable and recyclable materials, and that reduce material usage to take waste out of the supply chain. We honor our commitment to providing sustainable packaging solutions by choosing to design with SFI-certified corrugated board.
We also focus on the entire life cycle of our customer’s products and it’s this all-encompassing approach that helps us achieve maximum transit efficiency, freight cost savings, and product protection at the least environmental impact.
Make the switch to sustainable solutions. Talk to one of our packaging professionals today about how our custom packaging designs can improve upon your current processes.