Engineers start a business to fight plastic! Make industrial packaging and food lunch boxes more environmentally friendly, and major international manufacturers pay for it

Engineers start a business to fight plastic! Make industrial packaging and food lunch boxes more environmentally friendly, and major international manufacturers pay for it
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Did you know that 1.5 tons of single-use plastic is consumed globally each year, and less than 14% of it is recycled? Up to 80% of waste plastics are incinerated and buried and remain in the environment. In the next 10 or 100 years, they will continue to pollute the land and ocean, and even enter people’s food chain to affect health.

“Footprint” is a start-up company in the United States that uses plant fibers instead of plastic as packaging. The founders, Troy Swope and Kevin Chung, used to be engineers at the semiconductor giant Intel. They witnessed the power of plastic pollution in a yield improvement project and inspired With entrepreneurial inspiration, research and development of various materials and engineering techniques to produce more practical and environmentally friendly packaging.

 

Finding out the pollution in the semiconductor manufacturing process and switching to high-priced packaging saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars

In the 1990s, Intel, a major technology company, rose rapidly by relying on the sales of high-performance personal computer processor chips, and rose from the tenth largest semiconductor company in the world to the leading position.

However, although Intel’s technology is very advanced, the box used to transport the wafers is very ugly: disposable plastic boxes that cost less than $5 contain wafers worth tens of thousands of dollars. However, wafers are packed in boxes and transported over long distances. Occasionally, some blocks will fail and must be scrapped, resulting in a certain percentage of losses.

​Footprint co-founders Troy Swope and Yoke Chung were working at Intel at the time and were assigned to solve a problem that had plagued the company for a long time.

At first, they suspected that the plastic box was constantly vibrating and impacting to produce small fragments during transportation. These small fragments fell onto the wafer and caused physical damage. But upon careful inspection, no particles were found on the failed wafer.

Therefore, they switched to chemical testing and finally found the main cause of the failure: the plastic box was exposed to light and the ambient temperature rose to release volatile gas, and the box was not sealed enough, and the mixture of water vapor, oxygen and the wafer produced chemical reaction, causing the wafer to fail.

After finding the root cause, Swope proposed to the top management to set up a department dedicated to improving the wafer box, using advanced aerospace materials that can resist ultraviolet rays to protect the wafer from moisture, oxygen and volatile gases. Although the cost of the wafer box has increased, the amount of scrap has also been greatly reduced. In addition, the durable feature can be reused after cleaning. This project ultimately saved Intel $350 million in losses due to chip scrap within 4 years.

After making great achievements, Swope believes that this problem should not only exist in Intel, but a common problem in the industry, and it is also a potential business opportunity. So he resigned from Intel in 2007 and founded the industrial packaging company “Unisource Global Solutions”. With the help of contacts accumulated in the past, he connected with several technology giants Apple, Dell, and HP to tailor the outer packaging according to their respective product needs.

Two years later, Chung also joined the new company founded by Swope. However, as the company’s business grew, they began to outsource production to China. Unexpectedly, competitors immediately studied their products and imitated cheaper counterfeit products. Swope’s business has been hit hard since then.

 

Engineers start a business to fight plastic! Make industrial packaging and food lunch boxes more environmentally friendly, and major international manufacturers pay for it

 

Learn lessons and start from the most difficult place to build a corporate moat

One day, Swope saw at home that the food his wife bought from Costco, whether it was grilled chicken, sushi or desserts, was wrapped in plastic. This reminded Swope of the company’s wafers, and took a few boxes of food to the company’s laboratory the next day Tested; he was surprised to find that the food contamination caused by these plastic packaging was almost exactly the same as the contamination of the wafer box! And this could be another business opportunity.

Swope immediately asked Chung to go to the store to find products with plastic packaging that were likely to be eaten, such as: toothbrushes in plastic boxes, fruits wrapped in plastic films, etc. They jotted down the contact information of the manufacturer, and when they got home they called one by one to sell their non-polluting packaging materials. However, compared to expensive wafers, the characteristics of pollution-free and reusable are meaningless for cheap daily necessities, and cost is the priority of manufacturers.

Therefore, they did some research and selected plant fibers as an alternative. On the one hand, the raw materials are pure and natural, on the other hand, they are easy to decompose, and most importantly, the cost is much lower than aerospace materials.

Not long after, they met Kevin Easler, the chairman of the sustainable enterprise venture capital fund “Zenfinity Capital” by chance, and he also co-founded “Sprouts”, a supermarket chain specializing in organic food. Easler knows that plant fibers are likely to subvert traditional plastic packaging under increasingly stringent environmental protection policies, and is very optimistic about their potential. In 2013, he invested in the establishment of Footprint.

After launching Footprint, Swope decided to tackle frozen foods, the most challenging of all commodities to package, first. Because he believes: “Once we master the most difficult technology, we will have a moat separating us from our competitors.”

Since frozen food can be stored for up to two years, the packaging must remain intact for a long time at low temperatures without releasing harmful substances. Next, in the process of deicing, it is necessary to ensure that the fat of the food will not dissolve the packaging, and after entering the microwave oven, it must withstand the high temperature of Baidu. Finally, Footprint uses “environmental protection” to add value to the product, and the packaging is designed to decompose and return to nature within 90 days after use. It has been successfully used by health-conscious restaurant chains such as Sweetgreen and Chipotle to serve food.

With the number one problem solved, Footprint moved on to another, bigger goal: paper cups.

The annual global consumption of paper cups exceeds 250 billion, but most of them have a layer of plastic film inside as a waterproof layer, resulting in the need to separate the paper and plastic with professional equipment before recycling. In fact, only a small part of the paper cups that claim to be “100% recyclable” can be recycled.

Therefore, how to make a small paper cup both waterproof and recyclable has become a difficult problem that engineers and chemists have worked hard to solve for decades, and many creative ideas have also emerged, such as: edible cups or switching to biodegradable edible cups. Wax as a coating.

In 2018, Starbucks, McDonald’s and the social impact fund “Closed Loop Partners” cooperated to launch the “NextGen Cup Challenge” to solicit proposals from all walks of life. The paper cups of the new generation in the future must meet the requirements of “recyclable” and “compostable (can be naturally decomposed and do not hinder the growth of plants). growth)” and “reusable” 3 major conditions.

Of course, the Footprint team did not miss this opportunity to show their talents. It took a few weeks to make a prototype cup “CoolTouch”: the cup lid and cup body are made of plant fibers, and the interior is replaced by a water-based coating that does not contain organic solvents and is environmentally friendly. Plastic mold, and make a wave shape on the body of the cup to insulate heat, avoiding the use of cup sleeves.

In the end, the CoolTouch was selected among 11 other proposals out of 480 proposals to win the million dollar prize despite costing about 30% more than traditional cups. At the same time, Starbucks is also conducting market tests of cup technology in some stores in five cities including Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver and London.

 

“Environmental protection” cannot be eaten as a meal, and it is more important to establish a sustainable business model with technological added value

While Footprint’s ambitions are lofty, its strategy is pragmatic. Swope clearly knows that relying on the main environmental protection brand alone is not enough to make Footprint a sustainable business. After all, the economic scale of environmental protection packaging is not yet large enough to completely replace disposable plastics.

Therefore, from the first day of its business, Swope has been determined to win market affirmation without relying on environmental protection policies. To achieve the goal, it is necessary to continuously develop innovative technologies so that the “value” of the product exceeds the “price” advantage of plastic packaging.

For example, in Footprint’s home appliance packaging department, employees will move a 70-inch LCD TV to actually test whether plant fiber packaging with various structures and materials can keep the TV intact from a 5-meter drop; The packaging department has a robotic arm to simulate whether the strength of the paper beer collar can withstand the strength of people shaking the wine. After being immersed in salt water, it will dissolve within 12 hours, avoiding the tragedy of entanglement and suffocation of marine organisms.

The fresh packaging department specializes in antibacterial materials, so that fish, fruits and vegetables can be kept fresh without using chemicals, and can be composted after use; paper straws will decompose naturally within 3 months, but can be placed in liquid for 4 days without deformation.

Diversified technology makes Footprint’s customers very diverse. Supermarkets such as Walmart, Target, and Whole Foods, and major home appliance manufacturers such as Philips, Bose, and Foxconn are all Footprint’s partners.

In Footprint’s strategic blueprint, the future wants to step into the last mile of circular economy: recycling. At present, there is a lot of plastic waste that is difficult to recycle in landfills. Over time, it will enter the ocean with the wind and currents, and even form a “plastic new continent” in the Pacific Ocean. Swope wants to intercept these plastic wastes on the surface and remake them into hollow floor tiles, shelf pallets and other items that have practical value and will not directly affect human health, reducing the increasingly heavy environmental burden.

 

Engineers start a business to fight plastic! Make industrial packaging and food lunch boxes more environmentally friendly, and major international manufacturers pay for it

 

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