Editor’s comment: It’s crunch time for compostable packaging

John Kalkowski

January 29, 2014

2 Min Read
Editor’s comment: It’s crunch time for compostable packaging

Consumers, it seems, like a loud crunch when they bite into a crispy snack chip but not when they reach into the bag to pull one out. With considerable fanfare last year, Frito-Lay introduced a compostable bag for its SunChips, a line of multigrain chips. The brand is built on an image of being a “natural” food product for health-conscious consumers. So, it was natural that the brand owners decided to match the product with a more-sustainable package manufactured with PLA film derived from corn, which allows the bag to compost like other organic materials.

Recently, some people noticed that these new bags created more noise when handled. A few people began posting videos of themselves on social media sites, demonstrating how noisy the bags can be, while comparing the sound to jet engines, motorcycles or subway trains. The rush was on. Mass media jumped on the bandwagon. Soon, there were daily reports from earnest reporters and broadcasters decrying the noisy SunChips bags. Sales of the snack product reportedly dropped precipitously, and Frito-Lay quickly dropped the compostable packaging, despite its positive value to the environment.

Recently, I spoke with a reporter from National Public Radio who asked if this situation was going to have a chilling impact on the use of new materials technology that offers more sustainable alternatives. The sad fact is that it could have repercussions. Many companies in the industry are working to develop alternative materials with more environmentally friendly characteristics. However, consumer packaged goods companies could become more gun-shy about pioneering use of these products.

Consumers are king in the packaged-goods market, demanding eye-catching, low-cost packaging that protects the product and offers maximum convenience, while having minimal environmental impact. Packagers know these values often conflict, meaning there must be trade-offs in the packaging itself.

Studies show that consumers increasingly are incorporating sustainability into their purchase decisions. That’s why it’s disappointing to see an enlightened effort such as the SunChips packaging snuffed out so quickly. Maybe consumers should accept minor shortcomings in the face of potential gains in such areas as improving the environment in which we live.

The good news is that many companies are pressing onward with similar projects to improve the sustainability of their packaging. Since the compostable SunChip packaging was pulled, PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay, has announced that it plans to offer bags made from potato starch for its Walker brand of chips in the U.K.—provided they’re not too noisy.


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