We all remember it; that fateful day in April 2009 when SunChips and Frito-Lay introduced an innovative design of chip bag – an ordinary looking bag made of plant materials that could be broken down within a compost bin to fertilize soil. But the environmentally desirous traits aren’t why this moment, when we first pulled open one of these intriguing new bags, sticks in most of our brains. It was because of the fact that we distinctly recall thinking that a space shuttle had been launched in the next room.
I feel like I’m hyperbolizing tremendously here, but some are less prone to joking about this SunChips phenomena. Serious blog posts and Tweets reveal belligerent chip eaters have deemed the bags louder than a lawnmower or New York subway. A Wall Street Journal piece from August says that while SunChips are to be commended for using biodegrable plant materials instead of petroleum-based plastic, the bags sound like “a revving motorcycle,” “glass breaking” and “the cockpit of [a] jet.” Not to mention the worries that they would be not be very conducive to sneaking into movie theaters, libraries or classrooms – although it seems that ushers, librarians and teachers should thus be celebrating the new technology of packaging materials, for helping to alert them of rule-breakers.
The truth is, something about the process of making the special packaging materials, and “because the plant-based materials are not as pliable at room temperature” causes the distinct noise. So the worrisome trait is apparently intrinsic. SunChips could have just capitalized on the unique noise of their compostable bags, much like Rice Krispies did with their three elfin mascots, Snap, Crackle and Pop, which celebrated rather than made excuse for the crackling noise produced in their cereal when mixed with milk.
But the fault does not lie, I think, within the SunChips company. The role of a snack food manufacturer is to make a good tasting, safe product – which they have done (some companies cannot even say that much. The safety in eating Twinkies is highly debatable, for example). They seem to have exceeded those basic tenets by producing a snack healthier than its competitors, through using whole grains and less fat and salt in their chips. Also, one of SunChips’ eight plants, in Modesto, California, uses solar power to run. This isn’t to say that the people at Sunchips have made a business model that is completely sustainable without the use of fossil fuels, but it’s a start – and a solar run factory is almost expected of a brand that calls itself SunChips.
So who is to blame? I would say it is primarily us, the SunChip loving consumers. We have supported the perfectly salty, crunchy, crinkly chips all these years, watching them expand from the tasty original flavor into Harvest Cheddar, French Onion, Peppercorn Ranch and, my favorite, Garden Salsa. But then what seems strange to me is that, just because of one experimental packaging decision – which could potentially lead the way for more sustainable, eco-friendly packaging that all snack food companies could one day adopt – there were SunChips eaters that could turn their backs on what they once loved. They could let a little noise stand in the way of heaven’s gift to snackers. I cannot fathom how some consumers found the ability – after those many exultant trips to the vending machine for an appetizing, non-greasy snack break – to go back to SunChips bellyaching about how their “snacking experience” was somehow diminished by the crinkly noise of the bag. In my mind, the people who cared enough to call the complaint number printed on the side of the (biodegradable) bag display a really self-interested and close-minded perspective.
True, when you are paying for a product, it should be just the way you want it – or that is what supreme law capitalism has been telling us for generations we have the indelible right to stand by. The idea is that letting a manufacturer know of the flaws in their product helps to produce a more perfect end result. This is what happened with the first round of biodegradable bags – because some people just couldn’t hack the new bag, SunChips decided to restrict the use of the compostable packaging to the original flavor only, while they perfected a new, silent model.
There has to be some sort of line, though. The company’s goal was to have them entirely removed by late September or early October of this year, so it is likely by now they are all gone – and those consumers who actually liked the idea of sustainability in their snacks (which was also a great number says Frito-Lay) can only get the compostable bags in the original flavor. This means that in the meantime, while a new, less decibel-producing design is being developed, trash heaps are filling with no end in sight. Everything we use these days comes in a plastic package, which are then in turn thrown away – how can you possibly compare all of this waste to the small amount of noise pollution produced by eco-friendly packaging materials?
It is clear, from SunChips’ efforts, that the will to reduce waste is there. Large companies have the potential to make a difference, and lead by example; a potential that individuals can only accomplish to a puny extent. It is our job, then, to not crush their motivation with our petty complaints, so that real change – yes, greater than one company’s small advances – can have the possibility to occur.
Sarah is a sophomore majoring in journalism. Want to munch on Garden Salsa SunChips with her, or just want to continue to great debate about the cacophony of eco-friendly bags? E-mail her at [email protected]