By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
In the iconic coming-of-age film “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s young character is given advice for his future – “plastics.”
When the movie opened in 1967, plastics were gaining a foothold in U.S. households. Today, plastic pollution is choking oceans and lakes, piling up in landfills, killing wildlife and ending up in tap water.
That’s where a Gilbert company comes in.
“Every bit of plastic that has ever been produced is still on the planet today,” said Jeff Bassett, marketing director for Footprint, a molded fiber company in Gilbert. “During photodegradation, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. It never decomposes. It’s in our food and water.”
Footprint is looking to make a dent in plastic waste one straw at a time.
The company recently relocated its corporate headquarters from a 30,000-square-foot building near Baseline Road and Hobson Street to a 135,000-square-foot manufacturing facility near Gilbert and Germann roads. All design, engineering, testing and tooling are done in one location.
From its new facility, Footprint is launching its paper-straw manufacturing production. The straws are 100 percent bio-based and come in a wide range of colors, sizes and lengths.
As a construction crew put finishing touches to the building recently, two machines, or lines, were already in place for a trial run, each spinning three thin strips of paper, coated with an adhesive, into paper straws.
Because it is a food-quality product, only virgin pulp is used – no recycled fiber, Bassett said.
Employees who will be stationed at the machines will need to don smocks, gloves and hairnets and gain access to the food-grade section of the building with an electronic badge.
Paper was the mainstay in this country for everything from straws to butcher wrap for meat in the 1950s until plastics became ubiquitous because it is inexpensive and convenient, according to Bassett.
Trees are a renewable resource, but it takes five to seven years to turn out tree pulp versus 1 million-plus years to create the petroleum oil for synthetic polymer, he said.
And whereas plastics last forever, paper decomposes at the same rate as a tree leaf – about 90 days, he said.
Although paper straws cost more than plastic straws for consumers, Footprint also focuses on cost parity.
Barrett noted the higher cost is largely due to companies putting a surcharge on sustainable products, taking advantage that people are willing to pay more to save the planet.
Initially, Footprint will produce a total of 360,000 straws a week with the two automated machines, Bassett said.
Plans are to have a total of 62 machines on site, able to churn out 27 million paper straws a day by March, he said.
Footprint also is partnering with Arizona State University entrepreneurial students on a project to see if the production lines can be made even more efficient, Bassett said.
Despite the anticipated daily output, it pales in comparison with how many plastic drinking straws are used in this country – 500 million a day, enough to fill over 125 school buses every day, according to the U.S. Park Service.
Instead of going to the landfill, some straws end up in the ocean, where they can kill marine life. The public’s attention was raised in 2015 with a much-watched video showing a plastic straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nostril.
Straws, which are difficult to recycle, are among the top 10 items found during beach clean-ups, according to the Lonely Whale Foundation’s Strawless Ocean Initiative.
Although straws represent a small amount of the plastic found in water – about 3 percent, according to Get Green Now – a 2017 study by Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimated there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws littering U.S. shorelines.
But the tide is turning against plastic straws with companies such as Starbucks, the Walt Disney Co., Marriott hotels and Alaska Airlines phasing out their use.
McDonald’s announced it was replacing plastic straws with paper in the United Kingdom and will be testing alternatives in the United States later this year.
In July, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban food businesses from using plastic straws and utensils, while California became the first state in August to ban restaurants from offering plastic straws unless requested.
Straws are not the only plastic on the radar; others include singe-use plastic bags, Styrofoam and polystyrene food containers.
It is this consumer-fueled push against plastic that has enabled Footprint to grow from a six-person operation 4.5 years ago to where there are now, with more than 600 employees at its four facilities, Bassett said. The new building in Gilbert will add 260 more employees, up from the current 30, he said.
Besides its manufacturing locations in Gilbert, China, Mexico and South Carolina, Footprint is scouting for a fifth location somewhere in the Midwest, Bassett said.
Paper straws are a small part of what Footprint does. The bulk of the molded-fiber manufacturing business is developing and manufacturing consumer-electronic packaging and food trays in an eco-friendly manner.
Footprint delivered to Conagra packaged foods company from January to Aug. 24, 18 million fiber bowls to be used in Healthy Choice’s food bowls, Bassett said.
The sustainable technology firm also currently is manufacturing mushroom tills or containers for Walmart, according to Bassett.
He said the company also is looking to develop food containers that more closely align with the longevity of the product they hold.
For example, he added, mushrooms from the time they are harvested to their shelf-life in a refrigerator is nine days, and what Footprint wants to do is develop a container that lasts nine days.
Footprint has already helped its customers eliminate over 8 million pounds of plastic from their packaging this year using its core technologies, according to the company.
With the addition of paper straw manufacturing, the amount of plastic that Footprint can enable its customers to eliminate skyrockets to over 312 million pounds of plastic.
But reducing plastic’s footprint on the planet will take time, given it involves the United States’ third largest manufacturing industry.
“The opportunity to eliminate plastic is everywhere,” Bassett said. “The critical aspect of Footprint’s mission is to eliminate plastics from everywhere we can.”