Companies are developing alternatives to single-use plastic, and with options including seaweed and mushroom tissue, consumer interest isn’t disappearing, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit…Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.
The coronavirus pandemic and fears about its spread have brought to a screeching halt years of efforts to get Americans to do one small thing: bring their own bags to the grocery store and stop using plastic ones.
California has allowed stores to use plastic bags until late June under an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom, even though the state has had a plastic-bag ban since 2016. New York delayed enforcement of its ban until June 15. Other cities and states have taken similar steps with backing from the plastic industry, despite evidence that the virus can survive longer on plastic than on other surfaces (like paper or cloth).
The pandemic came at a time when momentum was building for a shift away from plastic, with many consumers demanding alternatives or halting use of products (plastic straws) altogether. Although about 72 percent of Americans say they actively try to limit their plastic use, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, the amount of plastic waste per person has remained constant: about 4 ounces per person every day, for a total of about 15.6 million tons in 2017.
But to those who are working on alternatives to single-use plastic, the consumer momentum is not disappearing. In fact, founders of several plastic-alternative companies said that they had seen even more interest from consumers in their products, and a renewed commitment from some of the larger companies they work with to press on.
“We’re fortunate enough that we aren’t seeing anyone say, ‘I’m not worried about sustainability, I’m just going to focus on survival right now,’” said Troy Swope, co-founder and chief executive of Footprint, which produces fiber-based alternatives to single-use plastics (cardboard, essentially). “If anything, we’ve seen an acceleration,” he added, since companies often see a boost from using sustainable packaging.
Fiber-based bowls being made by Footprint.
Mr. Swope said that his product, which supplied food service items at this year’s Super Bowl, was different from other fiber-based alternatives in several ways. The most important are a shelf life that is comparable to that of plastic, which helps prevent additional food waste; complete biodegradability and compostability; and the ability to be microwaved, unlike plastic.
Footprint was born of Mr. Swope’s work for 15 years as an engineer at Intel, where he became an “accidental environmentalist.” He saw firsthand the many different elements of plastic packaging that accompanied Intel products and was stunned by the amount of waste in the shipping and in the supply chain in general. He was even more alarmed that silicon wafers, elements of Intel’s processors, were considered contaminated after being transported in plastic that was similar to the tubs of cut fruit from the grocery store.
“We found the same level of contamination on the food that we did on the wafer,” he said, adding, “if it’s bad for a wafer, it’s bad for a human.”
Mr. Swope described a trip to Hawaii with Yoke Chung, his Footprint co-founder and colleague at Intel, many years ago where they realized that, because of ocean pollution and climate change, they were going to have to tell their children “what the ocean used to look like.”
“So that combination of what we saw happening to the ocean, and the food contamination and, later on, what it was doing to our kids, made us say, ‘Let’s go do something about it.’”