The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
October 10, 2010

SunChips Discontinues Compostable Bag. Do We Care?

SunChips bagsToday 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 its Cargill Petroleum page, it says, “Wider market participation in the world’s key producing and consuming markets increases your access to reliable oil supply and price certainty – helping drive your bottom line.”

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.

This post is my contribution to the Green Mom’s Carnival on climate change hosted at Climate Mama later today.

40 comments
Sherry Fergesen
Sherry Fergesen

As a composting gardener, I checked out the Sunchip bags when they came out. Here is why I never placed any into my compost-- I couldn't find out what they break down into. I went looking for specifics, and guess what the Sunchips website said: that they "break down completely into compost." Now I know that is just handwaving. They went so far as to say the compost would pass industrial composting requirements. But I wanted to know what the constituents are that would be added to my compost which I grow my food in. No such info forthcoming.

Amy
Amy

I apologize if someone has already said this but I feel like Pepsi is hiding behind the bag is too noisy argument by discontinuing the bag when the real problem is the bag won't compost. I like Sunchips and bought some in May. I put the bag in our compost pile and despite the midwest summer, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, and regular turning of the compost heap of the last 5 months, the bag is completely intact. It just won't break down. And yes, the bag is noisy which is annoying but I would happily deal with that if the bag would do what Pepsi claimed it would do.

Alicia Bayer
Alicia Bayer

One of the green blogs did an experiment where they tried their best to compost the bags and no matter how hot they got their piles, they didn't even begin to decompose. It sounds like it was mostly smoke and mirrors, but I agree that we live in a messed up culture if people can't handle the noise level of their chip bags!

Scott P
Scott P

The background of your site is really bright. I have a 54" plasma tv that I will leave with this website open on when I leave for work in the morning. I feel that by doing this, I will counteract everything you do, and that makes me happy. Also, I change the oil in my car every 500 miles (just to be safe) and dump the used motor oil in the local swamp. Nothing good ever came from the swamp right?

Jessica
Jessica

I have my thoughts about these "compostable" bags--I'm going to keep this is quotations, since they seem to be problematic in the home composters. In the big picture, I don't think they were going to make a positive environmental impact. There are many reasons for this: 1. Only Sunchips took on this "compostable" experiment, making the playing field uneven. If other chip companies has made a line of these bags, maybe there would have been an impact. But I don't think Sunchips are the most popular brand of chips, so I think the numbers are negligible. Also, the "compostable" bags only came in one size--lunch and party size were still plastic. 2. The "compostable" bags are only environmentally friendly if they are manufactured AND disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. Seeing that crops and energy are being utilized for a single-use product is NOT environmentally sound. Furthermore, unless you live in the handful of cities in this country that actually have INDUSTRIAL compost facilities, that "compostable" bag is headed straight to landfill--to break down like other organics would--turning into methane gas, and contributing to global warming. 3. This move by Sunchips to make "compostable" bags isn't dissuading consumption. If we want to be more environmentally sound/sustainable/friendly we must get off the buying band wagon and REDUCE. This single-use bag reminds me of Dasani's change to use part-plant-part-plastic water bottles. It's still a product you have to buy, it's still single-use, and it's not that much better. 4. Lastly, this "compostable" bag is just another form of greenwashing. It's that feel-good-I'm-doing-something-for-the-environment-dogma. It reminds me of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oot_RgrrpLI .It's like saying we're going to save the world with recycling.

Tracey
Tracey

I just went to the Sun Chips site to check it out. Now I am so sad that this little step is being reneged on. I am going to complain even though I never saw a compostable Sun Chips bag. Canada: Toll free at 1-800-376-2257, Monday - Friday, 10:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Eastern Standard Time. If you wish to contact us by postal mail, our address is Frito-Lay Canada, P.O. Box 40, Cambridge, ON N1R 5S9 US: If you wish to contact us by phone during business hours, please call us toll free at 1-800-352-4477, Monday - Friday 9AM to 4:30 PM Central Standard Time. If you wish to contact us by postal mail, our address is Frito-Lay, PO Box 660634, Dallas, TX 75266-0634

Tracey
Tracey

The only absolutely correct answer is LOCAL FRESH CHIP SHOPS!!!! with a custom flavouring bar served in paper cones like in India. BRING IT ON!!!

Rob
Rob

What do you expect from a conglomerate? They maybe need Joan Crawford back at the helm of Pepsico- "No More plastic bags!''

Andrea
Andrea

Where are people eating chips that the sound of the bag actually matters? Pristine wilderness areas 100s of miles from the nearest internal combusion engine (and out of all flight path range)? Church? Meditation rooms? I agree, people are lazy, but it was nice to justify buying a couple of bags of chips while it lasted (the bags of which, btw, still glint bluely from within my compost bin).

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green

I have to wonder if these bags really are a good thing. Just like we are finding fuel made from corn isn't a good idea, is plastic made from corn a good idea? I hate to burst people's bubbles but when it boils down to it I think we are just going to have to learn to use less. :)

Sam
Sam

We never really cared about the noise. I mean, so what; chip bags are crinkly. I wouldn't take it into a movie, but eating at home it doesn't really matter. This word is turning into a landfill, so a giant corp. making a bag that can avoid that is a huge step, in my opinion.

Darris
Darris

You echo my thoughts completely! ANOTHER great post ~ and I love the test video! I was truly disgusted by the whining about the bags being, "too noisy", I mean come ON! I don't eat Sun Chips or many bagged snack items because I don't want to ingest corn, dairy, or sugar all of which are in most processed snack foods. It's good to follow the money as in many 'green' items nowadays it's marketing and they are taking us for morons . . . which we may be if all we're concerned with is that a bloody bag is too loud . . .

Kathryn Grace
Kathryn Grace

Beth, you said exactly what I've been thinking through all this hoopla. And really, the people who care enough about the environment to pick a plastic bag made of corn because it's compostable over one made of oil give a rip whether it sounds different than plastic? Who are they kidding? They found a focus group who didn't like the sound and used it as an excuse to stop investing in environmentally sound practices of any kind and get a bunch of free publicity in the process--that's my guess. I don't buy Sun Chips for a bunch of reasons, and packaging is one of them (not to mention they taste bad). Any time someone tries to sell me industrially grown corn in any form, I back away. What's the point?

celia
celia

Beth, You nailed it! Excellent research and analysis! Regardless of what they're claiming and how they're making bags, I don't believe there is a viable alternative to plastic that is totally without plasticizers that leave chemical residues. Until they prove it, it's just another band-aid on the addiction. I choose to go plastic-free.

Pheas
Pheas

On the topic of single-use "disposable" packaging, does anyone have ideas for Halloween? We're considering just not participating because we're stumped for items that would be plastic-free, vegan, and appealing to kids.

EcoYogini
EcoYogini

ya know, although a moot point now, i would certainly argue against being accepted in municipal composting systems. in our province it's illegal NOT to compost, everyone has to, by law. We have municipal composting systems. and they do not, ever, accept compostable 'plastics'. Why? because the people sorting through can't tell the difference between a corn-based plastic and a regular plastic. Also, different bio-plastics require different heating systems to process, so how do you tell which bio-plastic is what? They all get tossed into the landfill. this post is fantastic Beth- you're so right. We're missing the point, we need to move away from a disposable lifestyle.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Sam, that's cool to know. One point for the PRO side. I'm glad to know that some people are actually reading the info on the site and taking action. BYW, what does your girlfriend think about the whole loud bag controversy?

Sam
Sam

"Seriously, how many SunChips consumers are going to check out the site to find out how to compost their bags?" My girlfriend actually got inspired by the SunChips bag to start her own compost pile and I helped her build one. It's a great marketing tool to inspire sustainability.

Reenie
Reenie

I would never have even thought about a bag of snack food being too loud, unless I was hiding the chips from someone! Sun Chips, I've never tried them b/c I usually avoid corn in processed foods unless it says "organic" and "non GMO". Just don't know about gentically modified corn. Also isn't corn (conventional) often grown from seeds that have Roundup the pesticide in the seed/plant or they are "round up ready."

ecogrrl
ecogrrl

the big thing that everyone misses is that these are only compostable in industrial composting facilities. the website indicates you can do this in the backyard which is total crap - how many get our backyard compost piles to over 130 degrees. when i read the label on one of the bags at my company's cafeteria, the small print said it was recommended for industrial. i do agree that the whole concept of junk food like this and single serving is crap and also that corn based compostable is even worse because corn is such a land and water hog (growing it for the first time this year in my garden i detested all the space it too for next to nothing - won't be doing it next year!), but i think the most important thing we need to work on is getting composting curbside in every city. but sun chips? frito lay and pepsico are the biggest greenwashers out there. these are the same folks bragging that they're now using 'pure sugar' in their sodas as a way of seeming 'natural'. umm, yeah.

SS
SS

Great post. I completely agree with your pro/con analysis -- especially the points about the problems associated with making even more things out of corn. I work at Mother Earth News, and we did some testing a while back on compostable bags. Most were not actually compostable under home compost conditions; they required industrial compost conditions and very high temps to break down. But even if they did break down in the compost bin, little about the sunchips is environmentally sustainable: monocrops of nonorganic wheat to make the chips, monocrops of GMO corn to make the bags (well, not anymore -- back to plastic).

Amber
Amber

I share your ambivalence. Compostable bags may be slightly better, but it's missing the point. On the other hand, if we're not willing to put up with a slightly louder snack bag for the environment, then do we stand a chance? Blargh.

sui
sui

Everything about this post just makes SENSE. Seriously, noise levels of bags of snacks? First world problem much? ERGH.

Tara
Tara

I just have to say that I just told my 10 y.o. daughter that the bags are being discontinued because of complaints that they are too loud. Her response: "My God, people! Suck it up, it's a BAG!" I couldn't have phrased it better myself. She gives me hope for the future.

LInda Anderson
LInda Anderson

When I first saw the Sun Chips compostable bag, I was really thrilled and I bought a bag. I thought it was cool that a Pepsico product was trying to be green. Thanks to calmer heads like yours Beth, I now realize that Sun Chips are just a snack and not that necessary. They aren't even that good, not as good as a regular potato chip. And who gripes about a snack bag because it is too noisy?? Are they eating them in church or at a movie? Ridiculous! Citizen Green

kel
kel

LOVE THIS POST!!!!!!! thank you- and Its not grumpy..heck if it is, Im like that 24/7.

Sarah "Angry Butterfly" Schumm
Sarah "Angry Butterfly" Schumm

I feel like a restaurant opened in my neighborhood and I never got to try it, too. I'm not normally a huge chip person but I really like sun chips, and I used to get them at Togo's and Subway a lot before I cut back on plastic, so I was looking forward to the compost able bag, if only to test it in my backyard and see if it worked, but I guess they only made them in the big size, and I never even saw one.

Jeannie Weller Cooper
Jeannie Weller Cooper

My search for waxed paper info has led me to this already fascinating tome,"Crunch: A History of the Great American Potato Chip" , Dirk E. Burhans, which is recounting the sad and wasteful story of modern day snack food production. The author is a potato chip fan, as am I, and is telling a lively, flavorful tale of the only bagged snack food resembling its whole food state. (I do eat the Snaps (?) chips, as well, but can't tolerate crackers anymore.) If you haven't read the book, I recommend it.

Jeannie Weller Cooper
Jeannie Weller Cooper

I cannot believe anyone ever said a bag was too loud, with the exception of David O Selznick when he was strung out on bennies producing GWTW, when he complained that peanut brittle was too loud for the movie's concessions. I have never liked SunChips so their packaging is not a personal issue, but I do appreciate your post and your illustration of the internal debate that accompanies so many purchases now days. I also appreciate the time and effort you took to expose the deafening noise level created when a consumer touches the compostable SunChips bag. They should have come with a warning label and ear plugs. Whatever happened to waxed paper?

Clif
Clif

I've written to the government so many times suggesting that they forget about Yucca Mountain and use the "chips and snacks" section of my grocery store as a storage site for high-level radioactive waste, along with the frozen "foods" section...actually that area might be better because all the refrigerated cases would keep the hot nuke stuff cooled. I finally received a response, but it said that the radioactive waste issue is on hold while funds are devoted to bringing out a "bag noise level rating" on snack bags.

Corey
Corey

I'm rather disappointed by this. I mean really, the bag is too loud? How nit picky can people be over something so silly as the sound the bag makes. On the other hand, I'm not really sad to see them go either. My sister bought 2 bags & gave them to me to compost. I cut one up into tiny squares & the other I tossed in whole. This was back in May when I dumped them in there, & mind you my compost is cooking really well. So, the other day as I was stirring the pot low and behold there they were, both the whole bag and the cut up bag. They certainly have composted, a bit, but it's definitely taking more than the 14 weeks promised. I can't imagine somebody buying these every other week & not slowly killing their compost bin with them. They're taking far too long to compost, although I'm sure they'd do better in a commercial composter.

esp
esp

You know, I bought a bag of these months ago and dutifully put it into my composter. I sifted that compost last week, and despite several months in there it looks almost exactly the same as it did when I bought the bag of chips. I have my doubts as to how "compostable" they really were under typical home composting conditions.

Veronica
Veronica

I saw this one coming. When I first learned about these compostable bags I was shopping with some friends for food for a party that night. When we got to chips I suggested Sun Chips and they immediately said no because the bag was too loud. Since I don't eat chips much I didn't know about the switch and I thought they were nuts, but then I saw the bag was new and sure enough when I crunched it I could see why they didn't like it. I can understand people being put off by the noise, but it's really unfortunate because 1) Sun Chips are good and 2) it was a tiny step in the right direction. I can understand your ambivalence, however, because it's not really the best change people can make,

Lynn from OrganicMania.com
Lynn from OrganicMania.com

Beth, I love this post, especially the stream of consciousness pro/con debate. I have those all the time too. Maybe we should get my daydreams together with your daydreams to debate...? :) Of course, I think if Pepsi and Coke really wanted to fight climate change, they would stop selling bottled drinks all together and push the reusable bottle business. And thanks for linking to my post! :) Lynn

Jessica
Jessica

Do we care? I guess that I care only a little bit because I actually do like SunChips. (Almost?) everything you buy in a cardboard box, like Wheat Thins, has a plastic bag inside of that anyways, so I don't think that Pepsico changing their packaging to a cardboard box would fix anything. I found this recipe for Wheat Thins that looks really yummy though. Beth, I know you've tried other ones before. AND it could be made all plastic-free by using bulk bins and bringing your own containers for the cheese :) http://www.katheats.com/favorite-foods/matt-crackers/

Deltaflute
Deltaflute

I work with children and have for years. Even though I can't find a particular craft to use with chip bags there are a lot "single-use" containers that I've reused. For example, toilet paper tubes, tissue boxes, paper towel tubes, cereal boxes, cracker boxes, yogurt cups, butter tubs, soda bottles, milk jugs, etc. If Pepsi is interested in eliminating their compostable, but the noise level is the problem, why can't they switch to a cardboard box? I can totally use one of those. There is some merit to using single-use containers. If people feel that it is a total waste, check with your local elementary, pre-school, or daycare. We would love to have your junk. Halloween is coming up. Send me your milk jugs and I will make some cute jack-o-lanterns from them. :)

Ed Mahoney
Ed Mahoney

Keep on being grumpy Beth. Someone needs to remind us to think about the things we want and how we live. I can't believe that the sound is the true reason for discontinuing the use of the plant plastic bags. Are people sneaking into movie theaters or on covert ops with Sun Chip bags?

David
David

I'm surprised at how dissappointed I am by this. I actually like Sun Chips, and the (suppossedly) compostable bag was another reason to let myself indulge. I am truly surprised at the things we find the time and energy to complain about; aren't all snack chip bags noisy??

Sandi Ratch
Sandi Ratch

Really?? I'm so incredibly disappointed in Pepsico. I had be waning in my environmental efforts, but I think I might be getting back up on my high horse. Thanks Beth.

Trackbacks

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