Will the world’s largest potato chip maker turn out to be an eco-pioneer? At the beginning of October junk food giant Frito-Lay (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) unveiled an upgraded food factory that the company claims could set a new sustainability standard for food manufacturers nationwide.
The Frito-Lay factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, a 25-year-old facility, recently underwent extensive renovations designed to significantly reduce waste, water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs. According to a Frito-Lay press release, the Casa Grande facility features a water recovery and reuse system that recycles 50 to 75 percent of the water used at the plant, thoroughly filtering the reused water to meet EPA drinking water standards. The building employs five separate solar power systems and a biomass-fueled boiler to to significantly reduce its reliance on unsustainable power sources. To reach Frito-Lay’s goal of reducing waste by 99 percent, the plant follows a strict recycling protocol and sends food waste to farms for use as cattle feed.
But is this all just corporate greenwashing? Could the creator of such fluorescent food-like substances as “XXTRA Flamin-Hot” Cheetos (Ingredients include: Monosodium glutamate, sodium diacetate, hydrolyzed corn protein, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 6 and Yellow 5) and “Late Night All-Nighter Cheeseburger” Doritos (Brought to you in part by the fantastic taste of unnamed “Artificial Flavors”) really, truly be serious about turning over a new, greener leaf?
Signs point to yes. While still under construction in 2009, the Casa Grande plant received a LEED Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. It was the first renovation of an existing food manufacturing facility in the country ever to receive such a certification. Since then, Frito-Lay has also retrofitted seven other factories across the country that have achieved LEED Gold status.
Frito-Lay is the parent company of SunChips — which produced the first commercial compostable chip bag in 2010. After a barrage of customer complaints and media mockery over the loud crackling sound the new bag made when opened, eco-advocates were disappointed when the company pulled the biodegradable bag. But rather than give up on the concept, Frito-Lay reformulated the packaging to be quieter and reintroduced the compostable bag early this year.
And since 2009, Frito-Lay has been part of a partnership with TerraCycle to promote TerraCycle’s snack bag recycling program, the Chip Bag Brigade, which encourages schools and non-profit organizations to collect used Frito Lay snack bags and send them to TerraCycle to be turned into upcycled totes and messenger bags.
And hey, in addition to those glow-in-the-dark orange food-like puffs, they do also make Natural White Cheddar Cheetos with organic corn. (No, seriously, they do.)
As a giant corporate producer of factory-made processed foods, Frito-Lay still has a long way to go before any serious sustainable food advocate would want to hold them up as a pure paragon of environmental and social responsibility. Many of Frito-Lay’s mainstay high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks are chock full of genetically modified, factory farmed foods, preservatives and artificial colorings and flavors.
But as such a powerful force in the convenience food market, with great influence over its snack food competitors, Frito-Lay does truly have the power to make a big difference with small steps toward sustainability. Here’s hoping the significant energy cost savings Frito-Lay will surely see at its Casa Grande factory will inspire other big food companies to look toward genuine green technology as a way to improve their public images and their profit margins.
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Detail of photo of cheese puffs by Scott Erhardt, from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.