Move over, single-use plastics: Arizona company makes Earth-friendly replacements

Samples of biodegradable molded-fiber packaging designed and developed by Footprint. The Gilbert-based company wants to eliminate single-use plastics from meat trays to straws. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

GILBERT – From meat trays to mac-and-cheese cups, single-use plastics pack the grocery-store aisles and usually end up in landfills. Now, an Arizona company is on a mission to replace them with biodegradable and compostable products over the next five years.

“We had the vision that the whole world was going to demand alternatives to plastic,” said Troy Swope, founder and CEO of Footprint.

The trick is inventing a material that’s as convenient and useful as plastic.

Mushroom container prototypes made of molded biodegradable fibers are stacked and prepared for shipment to Walmart at Footprint’s facility in Gilbert. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

Swope, who’s passionate about overcoming obstacles through innovation, and his business partners created Footprint in 2012. The company’s leaders used to work for Intel before putting their technology and innovation skills to work to start their own company.

They now produce packaging for big companies, including Walmart, Costco, Tyson Foods and Kraft.

The company does have competitors, such as Be Green Packaging in South Carolina, but most of these companies are focused on simple solutions to single-use plastics, such as takeout containers. Footprint is working on technology to tackle more difficult plastics, like frozen-food containers and meat trays.

They do this in their manufacturing facility in Gilbert, which recently relocated to a new industrial park. Much of the manufacturing space is empty, but the company, which currently employees 650 people, plans to expand over the next several years, and add 250 workers.

Stacked up along the walls of the production floor are bales of corrugated paper – cardboard – the first step in creating biodegradable products. The paper is ground up and mixed with various solutions, depending on the product, before going through heating machines that mold the material at 338 degrees.

Corrugated fiberboard is stacked before being used to form biodegradable molded-fiber packaging at Footprint. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

The products are made from a slurry. Different coatings are added to the mixture to create barriers against moisture, oxygen and oil, which is needed for food products to maintain shelf life while in storage.

This year, Footprint began producing paper straws, and it plans to increase straw production by the end of the year. They’re working to find the perfect paper and adhesive combination to make a long-lasting straw.

“The most difficult part is the customers want biodegradability and compostability, yet they still want the product to behave like plastic,” said Yoke Chung, chief technology officer of Footprint.

The science behind the products is important, and so is the company’s environmental impact. It says carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 40 to 60 percent depending on the type of plastic the Footprint materials are replacing. The company also says energy use drops as much as 50 percent.

“If you start looking at plastic’s true cost,” Swope said, “like the cost to haul it away and store it for 100 and some years, then we’re way lower cost than plastic.”

Mick Dalrymple, director of university sustainability initiatives at Arizona State University, recently toured Footprint. The company has a big, but not impossible, goal, he said.

“It’s a matter of how fast can they scale up. How can they fend off any competitors, and then also things like how can they avoid manufacturers that want to make exclusives with them,” Dalrymple said.

In five years, Footprint has invented more than 400 items, patenting at least three dozen of those items, including containers for produce.

“We want you to walk into a grocery store today, and you see all the plastic, and in five years, you’re going to walk into that grocery store and go, we changed this whole store – the bakery, the meat trays, the yogurt containers, right, the coffee lid on the way out – we’re going to transform that grocery store and it’s going to happen fast,” Swope said.

Footprint plans to increase production in the United States and expand into Mexico and Europe over the next few years.

– Video by Bryce Newberry/Cronkite News