The SunChips Compostable Bag Claim Combusts

Earlier this year Frito-Lay snagged much attention when the snack food conglomerate announced that it was starting to package its SunChips snacks in compostable bags.  The bags are made from polylactic acid (PLA), a resin derived from such natural resources as potato resin.

Frito-Lay started the compostable bag rollout in the early spring, announcing that one layer of its bags would include PLA, and that by Earth Day a month later, the packaging of its 10.5 ounce bags of SunChips were to be entirely compostable.  Frito-Lay claims the bag is entirely compostable within 14 weeks, give or take a few.  And then the quarreling over the company’s claims started.

Green packaging is a laudable trend; but breaking down what composts, how it composts, and how not to dispose of that waste is tricky.  For one thing, many Americans do not compost.  San Francisco is the only large city that requires its citizens to separate those pesky food scraps.  Many cities just do the next best thing, which is collecting green waste. Los Angeles, where I live, converts yard waste into mulch, which is free and works all right in our garden, but it is not the same as composting. If you toss your bioplastic cups in the green bin, that will render the yard waste useless.  But don’t throw that bioplastic in the blue bin because all those plastics together make for impossible recycling.  And if you deal with that bioplastic cup or bag by burial (the lazy man’s composting method), you are not accomplishing much except for covering that cup or bag in dirt.  Composting requires heat, which is possible through using a handmade or manufactured compost bin that allows for the process to occur.

The quibbling over whether Frito-Lay was overambitious or overselling reveals faults with both Frito-Lay and its critics.  When the new SunChips bag hit the market, Frito-Lay claimed that the bag was eco-friendly yet was made with one-third renewable materials—the compostable bag took a few weeks for final release.  The snack maker outlined the distinction, but the message was still confusing.  And one heckler tested Frito-Lay’s claims by burying a bag, only to dig it back up still intact three weeks later. I am not a pedology expert, but my understanding is that burying is not the same as composting (I found out the hard way when as a neophyte gardener, I buried eggshells.  The tomato plants did not respond but the ants sure loved them!)

Green packaging has a ways to go, but more companies are at least taking steps to avoid petroleum-based plastics.  But perhaps there is another lesson to be learned here.  In the end, SunChips, delicious or not, are still a processed food.  Remember Susan Powter from the early 1990s infomercials?  Her nutrition message was that if it comes from a bag or box, skip it.  The best snacks are ones that come from trees—not from ones using trees and other resources to wrap what we eat.  The real thing is not only more nutritious, but leaves less waste.  On that thought, the tomatoes are calling . . .

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

11 responses

  1. Composting requires oxygen, not heat. The heat is a by-product of the composting process. If you bury something and your soil is loose and very well aerated, it will eventually compost.

    1. Thanks for the comment. My impression is that if you just bury something, it's not the same as a using a composting bin, whether manufactured or built from scratch. I know based on places I have lived, the dirt was not loose, so just giving anything a burial wouldn't do anything–

      I guess my question is, if we are creating compostable packaging–does it make a difference if it just ends up in landfill? And also–if a package is 1/3 or 1/2 compostable–what difference does it make.

      Thanks for the clarification.

  2. One correction: San Francisco is NOT the only major city in the U.S. to require its residents to compost. Seattle has been requiring the same for more than a year. So although the Sun Chips bag might indeed be meaningless for most Americans, it's a welcome development in the Emerald City. Perhaps if more cities followed suit, such novel packaging developments would be more broadly relevant.

    1. Zoinks! I need a remedial Google search class. I'm not surprised, but somehow that fell under the radar. It doesn't surprise me, though. Let's hope this spreads to more cities, and thanks for the correction! :)

  3. thanks Leon! I love the final lesson learned at the end, surprising twist and right on! And no, burying is not the same as composting. All in all great wrap up of the debate and discussion around the sunchips green packaging solution.

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