Nearly 10 years ago, I too giggled at the horrendous sound a package of SunChips made in my hands.
Introduced in spring 2010, the compostable bag quickly gained more notoriety for its volume than its plant-based material. Its 95-decibel crunches were compared to a running motorcycle engine — loud enough to potentially damage your hearing. People created sassy Facebook communities including “SORRY BUT I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG,” which still has nearly 40,000 members despite being inactive.
SunChips’ parent company Frito-Lay had been experimenting with compostable packaging at the time to address concerns about the environment. One former executive, looking through a business lens, framed the problem as “branded litter.”
Watch the ad campaign before the bag’s 2010 launch. Story continues below video.
The company’s solution was to make a chip bag from more than 90 per cent plant-based polylactic acid, a polymer that used fermented plant starch commonly extracted from corn. Ad campaigns boasted that it could decompose within 14 weeks of being tossed in an active compost pile — lifetimes short of the expected 400 years it would take to break down a similar package made from petroleum-based plastic.
It was revolutionary. And it failed spectacularly.
Four years of research had gone into the compostable chip bag. It was a laudable advancement in snack bag technology. But fans of the wavy, square-ish multigrain chip simply couldn’t get over how loud it was. It didn’t last two years on North American store shelves.
Perhaps the bag was just ahead of its time. With the mainstream arrival of eco-anxiety, a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom,” I wanted to find out why the crunchy, compostable experiment didn’t work and whether something similar could succeed today.
“I think when that SunChips bag came out, it probably hit the market too soon and the consumers and the industry weren’t ready for it,” said Tony Walker, a biologist and assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s school for resource and environmental studies.
“I think now people would be more accepting of the noise because public awareness about the impact of traditional plastics is so negative … People are pushing back.”
Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of food and beverage behemoth PepsiCo, was adamant they were on the right side of history.
“An important step in our decade-long environmental journey, we believed the trade-off was worth it: a little more noise for a little less waste,” according to Frito-Lay Canada spokesperson Sheri Morgan.
Yet customers hated the bags so much that Frito-Lay logged a record number of complaints. The company first responded with a gimmick, offering to mail free ear plugs to crabby customers. Then in early 2011, it tried a new adhesive in hopes it would make the bag quieter. The efforts didn’t work, and SunChips sales took a hit.
Watch: Former executive shares a phone call from an angry SunChips customer. Clip starts from 7:44 - 8:30. Story continues below video.
Frito-Lay eventually gave up and discontinued the bags both in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2011. The company turned its attention inward to less publicly visible initiatives, focusing on making sustainability improvements to its supply chain and production line.
In the end, it wasn’t just the noise that sunk the bag, Morgan said. She said household composting was a niche activity at the time — and Canadian winters didn’t help. Frito-Lay partnered with the Compost Council of Canada to educate consumers, getting them to discard the bag into compost bins and not recycling bins, but some municipal green-bin programs didn’t accept the material so the bags ended up in landfills anyway.
It’s a problem that continues today. Plastics from plant-based polylactic acid continue to be produced and are commonly found in the form of cups and utensils, sometimes labelled “Made from corn.” But their increasing presence in stores and restaurants doesn’t mean municipalities are better able to process them than a decade ago.
Bio-plastics are chemically different from other plastics. They need to be processed separately and require high heat and moisture to properly break down into organic matter. But if bio-plastics are mixed with traditional plastic items during the recycling process, the batch is considered contaminated. Bio-plastics are commonly branded as compostable, but still show up in general recycling piles, increasing the risk of contamination and additional landfilling.
Watch: How close are we to reinventing plastic? Story continues below video.
The troubles faced by Frito-Lay appear to have scared off any imitators. Just last week, I strolled down the deliciously lengthy chip aisle in a downtown Ottawa grocery store and found nothing made from corn — well, aside from the tortilla chips. There must have at least 15 brands of chips, and all of them were sealed in plastic packaging of varying stiffness.
With environmental concerns at an all-time high, I asked Frito-Lay whether they have any plans to resurrect their crinkly, compostable solution.
“The experiment we started in 2010 with the SunChips compostable bag continues today,” Morgan said, to my surprise. Frito-Lay is developing new biodegradable packaging and has tested the bags with Tostitos in the United States. In Chile and India, the company is testing its new packaging with its Artesanas and Lay’s brands and paying attention to people’s recycling and composting habits.
“Once this research is complete, we will explore bringing this packaging to Canada,” she said.
There’s a lot of snake oil being sold in these eco-anxious times. People are increasingly open to changing small habits for the good of a more sustainable world. They’re opening their wallets, too. Not knowing better, I’ve opted for paper bags instead of plastic for my groceries when given the choice. If you look in my cupboards and drawers, you’ll find evidence of my eco-guilt in the form of multiple reusable travel cups and produce bags and way too many plastic totes.
My simmering anxiety isn’t unique. Ninety per cent of Canadians are worried about plastic pollution, according to an Angus Reid and CBC News survey last year; 82 per cent said they wanted more government action on the file.
“We are really starting to understand the mental health problems that come with climate change: stress, anxiety, depression, loss of belonging, loss of identity,” environmental psychologist Dr. Katherine Arbuthnott told me.
Emotion theory suggests that people make two assessments to help guide their responses to crisis. The first is to assess whether there’s immediate danger. The second is to ask yourself whether you have the resources to address it.
For a long time, people thought human activity wouldn’t have a significant impact on the planet until lifetimes later. There was a sense of “We’ll get to it when we get to it,” said Dr. Arbuthnott, who specializes in cognitive experimental psychology as a professor at the University of Regina.
Then last year, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified a 12-year window for governments to pull together and implement measures to prevent the potentially catastrophic effects of runaway climate change. The fact that “we’ve got a decade to turn this ship around has really focused everybody,” Dr. Arbuthnott said.
“For eco-anxiety, people are doubting their own ability to manage it… We don’t trust ourselves, we don’t trust our communities or worlds to be dealing with it.”
While society is finally leaping over the first psychological hurdle, the second still looms large.
“For eco-anxiety, people are doubting their own ability to manage it. That there’s some dangerous thing coming at me that I can’t deal with… We don’t trust ourselves, we don’t trust our communities or worlds to be dealing with it.”
Years ago, Dr. Arbuthnott attended a Canadian Psychological Association conference where an engineer appealed to her and her colleagues for help convincing people and politicians to adopt more sustainable infrastructure.
“He said we know how to do all this stuff. We can change the infrastructure relatively straight forwardly. What’s holding us back is people and their decision making.”
It turns out making compostable packaging that doesn’t cause hearing loss is only half the battle. If Frito-Lay reintroduced its crinkly chip bag today, the move would be mostly worthless to many people like Dr. Arbuthnott. That’s because composting isn’t part of Regina’s solid waste management strategy.
Policies and infrastructure vary across the country, but for the most part, Canada lacks the facilities to process bio-plastics like the SunChips bag. According to a report by the Globe and Mail last year, residential composting programs in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary don’t accept compostable bio-plastics, including ones made from corn. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to train people and machines to distinguish between an errant plastic cup tossed in the green bin and a cup made of bio-plastic. Not all facilities can process every kind of bio-plastic, and it’s hard to eyeball which is which.
In 2016, Canadians generated a prodigious 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste, and the vast majority wasn’t repurposed. According to a report tabled by the House of Commons’ environment committee last year, approximately 86 per cent ended up in landfills, nine per cent was recycled, four per cent was burned for energy and one per cent ended up as litter on the ground or in waterways.
In Canada, the responsibility for waste management is shared between all levels of government. The federal government sets rules about the movement of hazardous waste to prevent toxic substances from harming the environment. The provinces and territories manage landfill and recycling facility operations. Municipalities establish their own bylaws and handle education campaigns.
On the federal level, there isn’t a political consensus on improving Canada’s plastic recycling facilities. In the same report, the Liberal-led committee recommended that the federal government establish a funding program to help the plastic-recycling industry modernize and expand its facilities across Canada. Conservative party members on the committee disagreed. A dissenting report called the recommendation to modernize and expand an overreach. “There is no compelling reason for taxpayers to subsidize the modernization and expansion of recycling facilities across Canada,” it read.
Policymakers will need to pick up the pace. Beyond the usual concerns of inescapable environmental doom, there’s a new reason to reduce petroleum-based plastic. China, a country responsible for recycling approximately half the world’s plastic and paper, banned the import of plastic recyclables from Western countries including Canada in 2018.
As Canada continues to grapple with the transition, it’s more clear than ever why the crinkly SunChips bag failed. Consumers weren’t ready, politicians weren’t ready, the infrastructure wasn’t ready — and they still aren’t, really.
But according to Walker, the Dalhousie University biologist, a biodegradable chip bag was never going to be the solution. “We’re using single-use items unsustainably,” Walker said. To truly help the environment, people can’t just replace plastic with other single-use items.
If you want to be a better environmentalist, he suggested to reuse more items and to avoid buying “biodegradable” products. It’s marketing, he said, they’re mostly made of petroleum-based plastic except they’re engineered to break down into infinitely smaller pieces of microplastics at a faster rate. These microplastics, which can be chipped down to the size of plankton, can get into waterways and risk being consumed by humans or marine animals. Listening quietly on my end of the phone, I cringe thinking about the “biodegradable” products I probably have at home.
“I think we need a radical switch to change our behaviour and shift away from convenience items and maybe go to more reusable, sustainable closed-loop circular economy” packaging, he said. An example would be going to a bulk food store and scooping cereals or other snacks into your own containers.
A decade ago, there was something so obviously funny about the SunChips experiment. Why would anyone use such an obnoxious material? While it might not have been the precedent-setting saviour we’re all looking for, I don’t find it as funny now. It was an attempt, honestly made. With piles of plastic waste growing at home, the noise from an anxious public crying out for a solution suddenly seems a lot louder than a crinkly chip bag.