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Snacklash: Is America Just Not Ready For a Compostable Bag?

Snack food is not customarily known or celebrated for its subtlety or its dignity. In contemporary marketing, snack food is anything but understated. With the purchase of a bag of chips, can of soda, or bit of candy, you will be promised all manner of extraordinary sensory experience, from acute spiciness to pure brazen noise. The quality of snap and crunch in a food experience has been a key component of snack food marketing for quite some time, as if the attributes of exaggeration and bluster were synonymous with value (see exemplary Doritos commercial below)

So while we live in this noise oriented snack culture that exalts anything and everything that tickles the upper register of the decibel scale, we obviously have our limits (or our hypocritical tendencies), as is evidence by the recent rejection of the decidedly noisy SunChips compostable bag. Let me explain.

Sometime last year, SunChips (a Frito-Lay company) made a seemingly bold and progressive move when they brought to market a new product, well not so much a new product, as much as a new product package – the compostable chip bag. The bag, which was said to be fully compostable, was pretty revolutionary for the snack bag set. Sure, there were chip bags made from recycled materials, but here was a bag that, after its contents were consumed, could be tossed onto the compost pile, along with the banana peels, coffee grounds, and organic detritus to become one again with the earth.

Whether or not this product lived up to its compostable claims was almost irrelevant, as any serious investigation into the durability (or lack thereof) of its claims were drowned out by the noise of thousands of complaints. The complaints (ironically enough) were about the incidental noise of the bags when handled. Although bags of potato chips are not known for their reticence, these bags were exceedingly noisy. Some complaints said it was like the sound of breaking glass (my personal experience left me thinking it was closer to bubble wrap or the crinkling of cellophane) while other consumers just wanted their relatively quiet SunChips bags back. Well, the SunChips people listened over the roaring din of their compostable bags, and sent the new fangled compostable bags to the trash heap, in favor of good old, non-compost friendly, plastic bags (at this point, it is somewhat unclear whether or not SunChips will continue to manufacture the compostable bags as an option for consumers, or if they will just phase them out all together). The people have spoken.

Not since the whole New Coke phenomenon of the 1980s have the American consumers revealed their petty and contemptible true selves. While we have an unyielding appetite for snacks that send concussive waves of noise and violence through our skulls, we become wholly trivial and peevish if our bags make more noise than we anticipated, even if it is for a good cause, like the earth.

This whole disturbance, while somewhat entertaining for some, has totally eclipsed the discussion and investigation into whether or not the compostable bags were really successful. There have been many first person reports that indicate that the bags did not succeed in breaking down under normal compost conditions, as the company claimed they would. And many consumers have taken to fishing out the bags from their compost piles in frustration and moving them over to the conventional trashcan. This along with reports that municipalities that have composting programs, were picking the bags out of neighborhood compost bins, as their compostable qualities have not been proven (not to mention all of the difficulty in distinguishing a compostable bag from a conventional one). And there is of course, the issue of compostable items having little or no value unless they are properly composted (the package reads that it is suitable for “industrial composting”). All of these aspects though were seemingly marginal compared to the consideration of the aforementioned noise pollution.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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In my mind, there is really nothing inherently subtle or inconspicuous about ripping open a bag of potato chips and eating its contents. It is a noisy, and somewhat brutish act of consumption. And it is disheartening to witness the fact that these bags, that represented a legitimate effort on the part of a major corporation to embrace sustainable practices, were categorically rejected by a querulous and whiny consumer base. How are we going to clean up (or at least compost) the planet, if we can’t contend with a little noise? Is a towering garbage pile our true legacy?

Read more: Following Food, Food, Green Kitchen Tips, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

91 comments

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8:53PM PDT on Apr 9, 2011

i remember thinking those bags were very noisy, but it didn't upset me - I found it kinda funny!
how sad that it should end this way.

11:26AM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

I was disheartened when the majority of American consumers disliked the bag so much. I'm glad that Frito Lay tried something and hope this doesn't prevent them from continuing to attempt new ways to try to help the environment.
I had heard that they continued to use the compostable bags in Canada. If so, what have the Canadian consumers noticed about the compostable qualities of the bag?

2:10AM PST on Feb 21, 2011

I agree with most posters here that it's a a sign of contempt and being pampered and spolied. But instead of buying your chips, why not make them yourself? I do. Have a great recipe: Take five potatoes and clean them real well. Slice thinly and let them sit in salted water (2 tablespoons salt and 2,11 pt water/ 2 tbsp salt and 1 liter water) for about 15 minutes. Dry well. Heat oil to 356 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) and fry for about one minute. Let the chips drain on paper towels. Tada!

1:47PM PST on Jan 15, 2011

Good article...my sentiments exactly. Such petty people.

4:11PM PDT on Nov 2, 2010

Aside from the question of whether or not the bags where truly compostible, I am not at all surprised that so many complained. My children love Sun Chips and I was happy to see the new bags. They were slightly louder and also had a different texture, however, that didn't trouble me since I don't allow my kids to eat out the bag, nor do I, myself. I find that teaching children about healthy eating includes portion control, which is impossible when you eat anything out of its container. In our house we have "snack" bowls, which only hold a smallish amount of food, and my kids always pour chips or cookies or other "junk food" into these bowls. That way they get to have a food they like while I can be assured that they aren't filling up on nutritionally poor foods. Most of the people I know that have kids the same ages as mine don't bother with snack bowls or limiting fast food. They think its too much trouble and see nothing wrong w/ picking up fast food for dinner every night. These are probably the same people that complained about the noisey bags! =)

10:02AM PDT on Nov 1, 2010

Maybe if they made the non-compostable bagged chips twice the price of the compostable version people would change their minds?

2:22PM PDT on Oct 28, 2010

Wow, I think it's kind of sad how many people complain about the noise of a bag of chips... Especially if the bag is now more environmentally friendly. Who really cares about the noise?

2:09PM PDT on Oct 26, 2010

America is green only when it comes to the dollar!

3:31PM PDT on Oct 22, 2010

While I have always loved Sunchips, I usually opted for a less-expensive alternative (low income).... However, when they came out with this new bag, I made it a point to buy them, to let my dollars support their efforts/attempts. The noise of the bag, while initially surprising, is really no big deal - in fact, when I ask my partner to buy them for me, I mention they're the noisiest bag on the shelf (he's not very familiar with the brand).
It's really pathetic that the masses are so entrenched in their habits, and care so little about anything else. That's what I'd like to tell them all - You're Pathetic!

5:02PM PDT on Oct 18, 2010

America is not ready for anything that acutally helps the enviorment.

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