Today is 10/10/10, Climate Action Day. It’s also the week that Pepsico discontinued its new compostable SunChips snack bags due to complaints that the bags are too noisy. (See my comparison video below.) So what do global climate change and compostable snack bags have to do with each other? Well, I’ll admit it’s a stretch, but read on and I’ll explain how I think they’re connected and also why I haven’t written about the new bags until now.
The SunChips Compostable Bag Story
Last year, Pepsico announced it would be selling its SunChips snack food in compostable bags made from PLA (polylactic acid), which is a polymer made from plants rather than petroleum. The PLA used in the SunChips bags comes from corn and reportedly, it would compost in both commercial compost facilities and backyard compost heaps. That’s good news for snack food junkies, right? No more plastic bags to last in the landfill for a thousand years or so.
Several Fake Plastic Fish readers forwarded me the story. It was relevant, and I felt like I should write about it. But for some reason I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to say. I was ambivalent, really. And here’s how my thinking went:
The Great Debate Inside My Own Head
PRO: Less waste. If the bags would really biodegrade all the way without leaving little pieces of plastic in the environment, then that was a big plus.
CON: Yeah, but it’s still a single-use bag. Sure, the bag is compostable. But that’s only looking at one side of the equation — the end of the product’s life. Materials and energy were required to produce and ship that single-use package.
PRO: But come on, people want snacks. I may have been able to make homemade wheat thins once, but how many people have the time and energy to bake their own snacks? At least buying snacks in a compostable bag is better than buying in plastic, which is what people would be doing anyway.
CON: Yeah, but this just gives people a justification for creating waste. They don’t realize how energy intensive it is to create a bag like this in the first place just to be tossed into the compost pile.
PRO: But think of the petroleum saved by a bag made from corn rather than plastic. This is just one more way to reduce our dependence on oil.
CON: Not so fast. Industrial corn farming requires huge amounts of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. And growing corn in this country is fraught with other environmentally and socially damaging practices. From monoculture farming that destroys diversity to genetically modified organisms that ensure the monopolization of the food supply by large corporations, industrial corn is a troubling business.
What’s more, the PLA used to make the SunChips compostable bag is manufactured by NatureWorks, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cargill, the big daddy of industrial corn. And Cargill, in addition to making PLA, manufactures all kinds of chemicals, including High Fructose Corn Syrup — oh wait, I mean “corn sugar” — and actually trades in fossil-based fuels such as coal and petroleum!
Check this out…
Cargill’s NatureWorks site touts PLA as not made from oil, predicting, “Oil prices will rebound to more than $100/barrel once the economy recovers and will exceed $200 by 2030. Output from the world’s oil field is declining at a rate of 9%. This means we must plan the future around abundant and renewable solutions like Ingeo!”
While on Cargill’s Energy page, it says:
Our customers benefit from us being an active player in the trading of petroleum. Our range of products covers the entire barrel: Crude oil, Bunker Fuel, Fuel oil, Distillates, Naphtha, Gasoline, LPG.
I’m sorry. I can’t trust a company that talks out of both sides of its mouth like that.
PRO: Okay, but the SunChips site is helping to educate consumers about composting. It even gives instructions for how to compost at home. [05/12/2012 Update: The composting instructions have since been removed. Today, the site mentions nothing about composting. Looks like the company gave up.]
CON: Seriously, how many SunChips consumers are going to check out the site to find out how to compost their bags? Most of those bags are going in the landfill.
The Bottom Line: For me, the issue is all about consumption. Global warming is the result of overconsumption on a massive scale. Maybe a few chip bags are not going to make a huge difference, but that’s the point. Creating a chip bag out of corn and touting it as eco-friendly obscures the real issue, which is a culture of convenience, overconsumption, and waste. To me, the bag is just another single-use package on the shelf… only slightly better than its plastic cousin.
But then, I realize I can be pretty hard core, and that’s why I never wrote about the SunChips bags when they were introduced. I don’t want to discourage steps, no matter how small, in the right direction. But I also can’t jump on the “processed snack food in a slightly better bag” band wagon, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos binge notwithstanding.
A Moot Point, for Now
So anyway, it doesn’t matter what I think about the SunChips packaging because for now, Pepsi has discontinued its compostable bag experiment. Why? Because people just did not like the bag’s sound. Really. In this country, we are so freakin’ privileged that we have nothing better to do than complain about how our disposable chip bags sound.
Well, not to completely miss out on the discussion (I feel like SunChips is a restaurant that opened and closed in my neighborhood before I ever had a chance to check it out), I went to Safeway this weekend to hear the bags for myself before they are gone for good. And I was fortunate to find two bags of the same flavor of chips to compare. I made a little video for you guys. You can definitely hear the difference.
Like I said in the video, I don’t think the compostable bag is really so much louder as higher pitched and crisper sounding. But you know what? Metal water bottles are a lot louder than plastic ones, and we seem to be putting up with them just fine. (Well, all of us except for one picky classroom teacher.)
So now, despite my ambivalence about the bags, I find myself annoyed at the American public that can muster the energy to complain about the sound of their snack bags but are too freakin’ lazy to get out and vote when it counts. And I’m irritated the Pepsi couldn’t stand its ground and be a real leader instead of choosing profits over environmental stewardship. But what do I expect from a company that also gives us plastic-bottled sugar water? Yeah, I’m grumpy today. I need sleep, which is how I’ll be spending my 10-10-10.
In bed, all you consume is air.