Eat the chips, compost the bag

With the heat on snack-food firms over packaging, Frito Lay to start Sun Chips in Earth-friendly bags. 

Martin Mittlestaedt
The Globe and Mail
February 04, 2010

The lowly chip bag is getting a green makeover, the latest salvo by snack-food companies trying to improve their environmental image.

Starting next month, Frito Lay Canada will sell its Sun Chips in bags that can be thrown into the backyard composter or municipal green bins. The food giant claims the packaging, made of sugars derived from corn, is the world's first completely compostable chip bag.

The snack-food industry has long been under fire over the amount of litter and waste from its products, and a flurry of other companies have made similar actions.

Last month, Nestlé Waters Canada introduced a new throwaway bottle that uses 27 per cent less plastic than its previous container. In December, Naya Waters unveiled a new bottle made completely from recycled plastic, a development it called a first.

Frito Lay officials said the backlash from consumers over packaging is intense.

"Every time consumers talk to us and engage with us, they ask us: 'Oh, what about your packaging?' "said Helmi Ansari, a sustainability expert with Frito Lay.

The company is hoping to reap maximum publicity from its switch by pitching the new bags on 45-second television commercials during this weekend's U.S. Super Bowl.

The new bag will break down completely after 14 weeks in a hot, microbe-rich compost pile of the kind municipalities run for organic waste, or about the same time it takes for an apple core to degrade, according to a company estimate. In backyard composts, it will take somewhat longer, and bags thrown onto the ground will take even longer to degrade into soil.

Frito Lay officials yesterday played up the benefits of composting, which include reducing the amount of garbage going to landfills and use of non-renewable materials. "The consumer gets to eat the product and the Earth gets to eat the bag, and I think that's pretty cool," said Brad Rodgers, a packaging researcher at Frito Lay.

The new bag is made from polylactic acid, and while now derived from corn, it can be made from any crop containing high amounts of sugar. Consumers will notice the switch because the bags aren't as soft as traditional plastic packaging.

The company said it sells 20 million Sun Chips bags a year, and although the new ones entail extra expenses, it isn't raising prices. It said the limited availability of polylactic acid restricts the number of products for which it can use the new material.

The company's move has potential drawbacks, some waste experts say. Making one type of bag compostable could be confusing, and people may start throwing regular chip bags into green bins, said Norm Lee, Peel Region's director of waste management.

He said the problem could be fixed if all companies adopt the same packaging material. He said some municipalities, but not Peel, remove plastic bags before composting, in which case the chip packaging would end up in landfill anyway.

Standard chip bags, typically a mix of foil and plastic, are almost impossible to recycle, said Heather Marshall, solid waste expert at the Toronto Environmental Alliance, an activist group. "If they want to reduce their packaging or have more environmentally friendly packaging, they really only have one option," she said.

As Originally Published: Eat the chips, compost the bag