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

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

Water just right: HOAs strive for green fields and conservation

PHOENIX – Jose Alvarez, a supervisor at R. H. Dupper Landscaping, stood up from changing a sprinkler nozzle on a large grassy field at a homeowner’s association in Chandler, Arizona. He surveyed the turf, a patchwork of green and brown.

“It looks terrible,” he said. “The sprinklers, they don’t have enough pressure, and they spray, like, a little bit.” He noted the rings, like miniature crop circles, created by uneven watering.

Josh Dupper said they get a lot of business fixing this kind of problem.

“Their water bills were through the roof because they were essentially flood irrigating,” Dupper said. “It still looked bad, even while they were spending a ton on water. And their landscaper just did not know what to do.”

Revamping the irrigation plan is the first step. Then, Dupper’s company uses historical evapotranspiration data and homemade software to determine how much a field gets watered. He has crews come to each site monthly to take readings and adjust settings based on the forecast.

Josh Dupper of R.H. Dupper Landscaping in the Phoenix area says his industry lags behind in the technical knowledge needed to finely-tune water use to weather conditions. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

It’s a Goldilocks approach to landscape watering: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when we talk about water use in the desert. Some communities are paying homeowners to rip out their grass. Others, like this Chandler HOA, are trying to save water on the green fields that residents adore.

In nearby Gilbert, Arizona, Jeff Lee is trying to nudge HOAs to look at watering that way.

Lee, a water conservation specialist for the town, traces an HOA’s landscape area using Google Earth Pro, converts that to square footage, then uploads the HOA’s monthly water usage to a vendor. The vendor, Waterfluence, analyzes the data using that month’s actual weather — not the historical weather conditions Dupper uses. HOAs and landscapers can see the results on a web portal.

“We can actually show them the cost comparisons,” Lee said. “How many dollars they should’ve spent on water and how many dollars they actually did spend on water based on what the landscaper was doing.”

Lee doesn’t want HOAs to underwater their large fields, trees and shrubs. The point is to let them know if they’re hitting that Goldilocks volume of water that maintains lush grass with low levels of water waste.

This homeowners' association in Chandler, Arizona overspent on water and still had patchy results. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

The Gilbert program is free for HOAs and voluntary. Lee said about 30 percent of the town’s 205 HOAs are enrolled. He estimated Gilbert saves over 200 million gallons of water a year through the program.

If you’re using too much water, though, getting on track can be expensive.

Kayte Comes is a board member of her HOA in Peoria, northwest of Phoenix. When her community, the Village at Vistancia, chose a new landscaper, they hired a firm that prioritizes conservation. Upon that firm’s recommendation, the board decided to replace parts of their irrigation system.

“Not every HOA, unfortunately, has the funds to do that,” she said. “But it’s gonna save your HOA in the long run.”

She added that a lot of businesses are willing to work with customers to help them afford upfront costs.

Some HOAs and landscapers are turning to so-called “smart controllers,” devices that adjust watering levels automatically. But Lee, Dupper and others say the smart controller is only as smart as the landscaper who programs it. Landscapers in Arizona can get a license if they pass two exams and have four years of experience.

“Part of the problem with the industry is it’s not advancing as fast as it should in the technical aspect,” Dupper said. “Because there’s no accountability or requirement to have it.”

The state of Arizona puts a water limit on HOAs in so-called “active management areas” in the middle of the state. Even then, it only applies to those with ten acres of landscaping or more. But with an increasing awareness of tech tools and water scarcity, more HOAs may be looking for that Goldilocks volume.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.