“If you use paper, but put a plastic liner on it, you really haven’t solved anything ”, Says Jeff Bassett, SVP at Plant Based Packaging Specialist Footprint, Which makes molded fiber products that can be recycled or composted, but have the kind of barrier properties businesses expect from plastic (avoiding moisture, oil, and steam), with the former food customers, including Conagra’s Healthy Choice Microwaveable Power Bowl brand.
“If anything, you just took the fiber and made it non-compostable andnot recyclable. We are looking to deliver a plastic-free, recyclable and compostable yogurt pot probably later in 2022. “
The challenge for companies looking for more sustainable packaging in the yogurt aisle, Bassett said, is shelf life: “For a cup of yogurt in the United States, you envision over 90 days for a refrigerated product with something alive inside.
“So we take some of the basics that we used for something like a cup of mac and cheese and then we try to take our technology from the frozen food department and apply it to a cup of yogurt, although ‘In the United States, the shelf life requirements for yogurt far exceed what we see in Europe.
“Oxygen and water vapor pass through almost all materials over time”
But why is it harder to make a compostable, recyclable plant-based material that would work for a cup of yogurt, compared to, say, a coffee mug?
“It’s all about the transmission rate [of gases and moisture through materials]”said Bassett, which points out that the barrier properties of Footprint’s biomaterials might only have to work for at most 72 hours for a single-use coffee cup of the type that a Starbucks or Dunkin ‘might use, whereas a cup of yogurt should keep its contents safe for weeks.
“Oxygen and water vapor move through almost all materials over time”, noted Bassett, who says Footprint always tries to strike a balance between creating a material that is strong enough to protect its contents throughout its lifespan, while degrading – under the right conditions – when it’s filled. its function and can also be recycled.
Founded in 2014 by former Intel engineers Troy Swipe (CEO – pictured left) and Yoke Chung (CTO – pictured right), Footprintis headquartered and technology development center in Gilbert, Arizona; and manufacturing facilities in Richburg, South Carolina, and Mexicali, Mexico (the latter site is currently under expansion and will operate 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing space by the end of year 2022).
The company, which is building an innovation center in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, is also looking to develop a European manufacturing plant, most likely in Poland, said senior vice president Jeff Bassett. Image credit: Empreinte
Meat trays, coffee cups, oven and microwave safe, film-sealable flat trays, boxes of fresh produce, shelf life, printable cups …
So what’s the holy grail when it comes to sustainable packaging?
Right now, Footprint can make everything from meat platters, coffee mugs, film-sealable microwave or oven-safe ready-meal platters, fresh produce cartons, shelf-stable cups. for products like macaroni and cheese that can be printed, and more, says Bassett.
“We’re already transforming the grocery store in terms of frozen food, but where I see things really developing is in the center of the grocery store, the shelf-stable mugs, the things you add water and reheat. We are also making significant advances in eliminating plastic and polystyrene supermarket trays.
“Tyson Foods uses our product, as well as Beyond Meat, Conagra, Daily Harvest, Sweetgreen and Sambazon… and large grocery stores such as Albertsons use our meat platters and for fresh vegetables. And if you bought sweetcorn over the summer from Costco, it probably came in our fiber trays as well.
Coffee cups, however, are the “Next main category”, he said.
“This will be the one we really hit next year and we’re getting some pretty big customers.”
“We know that all of our fiber substrates meet the guidelines for recyclability of paper flow products.”
But how does Footprint’s patented technology – which claims to be the “only plastic-free solution that offers extended barrier properties to replace rigid plastics “– to work ?
If you look at fibrous material under a microscope, Bassett said, “They look like an intertwined bird’s nest, so the first thing is, mechanically, how do we reduce the holes in the bird’s nest? Then we use additional chemicals to plug those holes with starches and other biomaterials that close the holes. For some products with extended shelf life, we may also have a bio-based spray coating. “
He will not disclose the source of the starches, but said Footprint is not diverting products that would otherwise have entered the food supply. Likewise, for fibers, Which footprint can source from virgin fiber or corrugated cardboard waste, “If we’re in North America, we’re not pulling bamboo or bagasse [the part of sugar cane left over after refining] from Asia.
He added: “We need long fibers, short fibers, very curly fibers and others that have very high tensile strength, so this is a technical solution, usually a mixture of [FSC certified] hardwoods and softwoods, then we apply steam and pressure before using starches and proteins to fill the remaining holes in the structure.
“We know all of our fiber substrates meet guidelines for product recyclability in the paper stream, but if there is food waste on the packaging, we always recommend composting.
“Now, of course, the composting facilities aren’t very available yet, but it’s almost like the Field of Dreams problem: if there isn’t a pile of compostable material in a market space, which will build a composting facility? One must come first.
“And even if we are heading to a landfill, at least we are not putting petroleum-based plastics there.. “
Supply chain integration
So how does Footprint’s technology fit into CPG’s supply chain?
“We focus on plug and play for our customers, so we develop finished products formed [such as pre-molded produce trays], ” Bassett said.
“But for some of our new technologies that we’re implementing for Annie’s line of macaroni and cheese, the cup comes to them pre-printed, whereas previously it was a blank cup that they filled. and then had to apply secondary packaging. “
Price and industry adoption
Asked how the food industry received Footprint’s packaging, he replied: “It’s like any new technology. There are the first adopters, and then other companies that will say, I have to see 10 of my competitors doing it before I even touch it. “
While the shortage of lumber has impacted lint prices, “One of the reasons people want to migrate from petroleum-based products to fiber is that it’s generally a more stable market.” he asserted. “Plastics can skyrocket and move around, whereas fiber is generally very stable. “
As for the prices, he said, “Right now we’re about 10-15% more expensive, but over the next three to four years we think we’ll be able to lower our prices to be on par with plastic. “