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How this ex-Intel boss became an 'accidental environmentalist' fighting to eliminate single-use plastics

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Troy Swope, a co-founder and CEO of Footprint
Photo courtesy Footprint

Troy Swope's journey to launching the compostable container company Footprint started when he was working as a manager at the Silicon Valley tech company, Intel.

And while Footprint, which launched in 2014, is working to eliminate single-use plastics, a key issue for the health of the planet, he didn't set out with the intention to be a sustainability activist.

"I describe myself as an 'accidental environmentalist,'" Swope tells CNBC Make It.

Even so, Footprint, which ranked No. 45 on this year's CNBC Disruptor 50 list, is quite intentional about its goals to make the planet healthier. Food companies, from large ones like McDonald's and Conagra to small ones like Sweetgreen and Beyond Meat, use Footprint's plant-based, biodegradable packaging.

Concerns about plastic food containers catalyzed Swope's journey

Swope, 48, was running a materials engineering group at Intel, where he was responsible for innovating materials that would save the company money.

"We saw that plastic was actually damaging our product in transit, and it was damaging it through outgassing," which is when gas that was previously dissolved or absorbed in a solid is released, Swope explains.

"The best way to describe outgassing is your new car smell," he says. "That's actually plastic and leathers and glues outgassing."

While Swope's team at Intel was able to identify the plastic that was outgassing and damaging products in transit, he says they "couldn't really get it to stop."

This made Swope, who has four children, think about whether the food wrapped in plastic that he and his family buy was also dangerous. Swope brought pineapple spears and apples wrapped in in PET, or polyethylene terephthalate plastic, and several microwaveable items wrapped in PET and PP, or polypropylene plastic.

"I started bringing that food to Intel and testing it to see if the same kind of characteristics that we saw on Intel's product was in the food. And actually, far more was on food," according to Swope. "And that scared the crap out of me."

Some components in some plastics have raised concerns with industry watchers. There is "significant evidence that exposures to two types of chemicals found in plastics — phthalates and bisphenols — can affect health, especially if the exposure occurs in the womb or during early childhood," the New York Times reported. And there is some sentiment that "existing government regulations are inadequate to protect us from these chemicals."

Indeed, "very few of the chemicals used in food packaging, especially plastic, have been properly tested for human health, like hormonal effects," Dr. Leo Trasande, Director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine and an advisor for Footprint, tells CNBC Make It.

However, "serious concerns about the health effects" of certain plastics (including phthalates and bisphenols) "include obesity, infertility, gestational diabetes as well as a host of other chronic conditions," Trasande says. Phthalates are "typically used in softer polyvinylchloride and other plastics," and bisphenols are "used in harder polycarbonate plastics," he says.

The Plastics Industry Association says that suggesting that "everyday" uses of plastic are toxic is "fearmongering" and "undermines public confidence in the rigorous testing that these products undergo," according to a spokesperson.

By 2012, Swope says he was ready to take on the "cause" of getting plastic containers away from food. So he started raising money to build Footprint with a former Intel colleague, Yoke Chung.

Today, Footprint develops plant-based fiber containers for frozen food, fresh produce, ready-to-eat meals and quick service food businesses, to name a few. The containers Footprint sells to customers aim to be recyclable, compostable and biodegradable.

According to public funding database Crunchbase, Footprint has raised almost $520 million. Investors include Cleveland Avenue, which was founded and led by former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, and Stamford, Conn.-headquartered investment company Olympus Partners.

It's worth noting that Swope is not against all plastics — plastics in cars or phone technology, for example, are to be expected, he says

"My No. 1 objective was to get plastic away from food for my children's health, for everybody's children's health," Swope says.

From concern for the health of humans to concern for the health of our planet

Swope's concerns about plastics being near food was "way ahead of its time," he says. But plastic-free food containers are also a solution to another "obvious problem: Pollution disaster."

And so Footprint leaned into environmental benefits, too.

"We said, 'Well, it better not have a negative impact on the planet.' So climate change and carbon emissions and all that stuff became forefront in our analysis on the technologies we're developing, that it had to have a positive impact," Swope says.

Ingredients that go into Footprint containers include recycled cardboard boxes, virgin wood fibers, agricultural waste, among other ingredients, according to Swope.

Awareness of the concerns he has regarding having plastic near food is now "near equal footing" of the environmental concerns. But when Footprint was launching, the more sellable problem to fix was "the pollution disaster" and "the ocean disaster," Swope says, referring to the massive quantities of plastic which ends up the oceans.

The strategy is working, and Footprint is growing.

The 1,500-person company, based in Arizona, is on track to making almost one billion units of plant-based packaging for its corporate customers this year, according to Swope. In 2022, he plans to sell "billions of units."

In 2020, Conagra said in a public statement that by using Footprint's plant-based fiber bowls for its Healthy Choice Power Bowls, new Hungry-Man Double Meat Bowls and P.F. Chang's Ramen single-serve meals, the company will decrease its carbon footprint by 34,117 metric tons, which is the "equivalent to avoiding the greenhouse gas emissions of driving around the planet 3,399 times or 84 million miles."

Of course, replacing single-use plastics in the food industry won't solve the global garbage problem.

More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And humans generate over 2 billion metric tons of garbage per year, according to the World Bank. That's 4,431.3 billion pounds, which is approximately 4.5 trillion pounds per year.

Footprint is currently focused on eliminating single-use plastics that package food, but its goals are ambitious.

"The entire disaster and climate change impact that is plastic, we're going to improve," says Swope.

See also:

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2050 if we don't do anything about climate change: Hot, a constant cough, regular mask-wearing

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Plant-based packaging-maker Footprint CEO on eliminating single-use plastic