Few things make America’s plastic addiction seem as urgent as walking through a Phoenix-area Sprouts Farmers Market with Troy Swope, cofounder and CEO of Footprint, a plant-based packaging company using technology to wean corporations off single-use plastics. Sprouts is a natural-food chain that collects waste to be recycled at each of its 30 stores, and last year averaged more than 1,000 pounds of recycling per location every day—meaning that what we are observing represents the best of many bad options in the grocery business.
We pass plastic milk jugs, plastic chip bags, cardboard pasta boxes with tiny plastic display windows, plastic bags containing chopped lettuce, and clear plastic egg cartons. “So much waste,” Swope groans, in his trademark PLASTIC KILLS T-shirt.
Sprouts cofounder Kevin Easler, who is now the CEO of sustainable-business investment company Zenfinity Capital and chair of Footprint’s board, has joined us for this stroll. He points out a mountain of strawberries in plastic clamshells: “This one drives me crazy,” he says. All too often, “grocers go to their suppliers and say, ‘Put it in something besides plastic,’ and the suppliers go, ‘There is nothing else.’ ” Plus, he adds, in the case of the strawberries, “plastic encourages mold.”
Swope eyes a boxed water that markets itself as Earth-friendly. “Not only does it have both paper and aluminum,” he sighs, “but the inside has a hidden plastic lining that isn’t easily recycled.”
We reach the meat section, where Swope and Easler pause to appreciate Beyond Meat’s (No. 12) new Beyond Sausage tray, an unusually sturdy and attractive-looking brown-fiber case that biodegrades in 90 days. It’s made by Footprint.
Swope created Footprint in 2013 with Yoke Chung, a close friend and now the company’s chief technology officer, in order to tackle food packaging’s environmental and human-health problems. They started by searching store aisles for pointless plastic—TV packaging, toothbrush boxes, wine shippers—and then cold-calling the manufacturer in hopes of business. Today, the company, which has 1,200 employees and factories in the U.S. and Mexico, is gaining prominence in an industry where the widely available and cost-effective options remain woefully eco-unfriendly. The trillion-dollar (and growing) consumer packaged goods industry’s meat trays, shelf-stable bowls, disposable cups, and other containers account for almost 150 million tons of single-use plastics annually. This equals about 25 Great Pyramids of Giza—and less than 14% of it is recycled each year. The rest is landfilled, burned into the atmosphere, or left in the environment, where, after remarkably brief service, it will spend the next 10 to 1,000 years polluting forests, turning the ocean into a polymer soup, and eventually entering our food chain, where the compounds break down, releasing substances believed to cause cancer, endocrine system disruption, “pre-polluted” childbirths, and other problems. Sustainable alternatives, meanwhile, have yet to reach meaningful scale.
But the sausage tray we are looking at is nontoxic, compostable, and already on shelves in more than 4,000 U.S. stores. It’s made with biodegradable molded fiber, which is engineered to outperform plastic. (Unfortunately, the trays often wind up wrapped in plastic; nobody has yet devised an affordable alternative to polymer cling wrap.) Footprint uses materials such as virgin newsprint and double-lined kraft (basically, clean postindustrial cardboard scraps) with patented food-safe chemistry to produce the tray, as well as shelf-stable cups and oilproof microwavable bowls that can stay frozen for 180 days.