SunChips: A Brief History of a Packaging Disaster

SunChips says it's made its biodegradable bags less noisy...but are they biodegradable?

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This story just keeps on going. In the spring of 2009, Frito-Lay shared some exciting news with SunChips fans. The snack already felt healthy because, after all, the chips were whole grain and now, with new biodegradable bags made from plant material, it would feel environmentally responsible too!

There was just one problem. The bags, when crinkled, were noisy. Really noisy. So noisy that they scared little kids, exceeded the decibel level of New York subway trains, and engendered, as these things tend to do, a spate of amateur sound experiments on YouTube and a popular Facebook page called "Sorry But I Can't Hear You Over This SunChips Bag." The bag malfunction and bad press caused SunChips sales to decline more than 11 percent in a span of 52 weeks, and Frito-Lay soon reverted to its non-eco friendly packaging for all but original SunChips. "While many are willing to put up with minor annoyances for the sake of the environment (see: quality of early Seventh Generation products)," Fast Company noted at the time, "it looks like Frito-Lay reached a breaking point."

But now we learn Frito-Lay didn't shrink in the face of failure. On Thursday, the company announced that, at long last, it had developed a "quieter compostable bag" by using a rubbery adhesive between the bag's layers to stifle noise. In a corporate video on the site, a woman identified as Rachael Harris shops the new bag with consumers and marvels that she can "hear birds chirping." With packaging so quiet, she says, she could stuff a t-shirt in the bag and "use it as a pillow." The Sun Chips Facebook page is awash in comments on the development.

Yet it appears Frito Lay's packaging pitfalls are not entirely behind them. In an appearance on the CBS Early Show on Monday, Bob Markovich of Consumer Reports claimed that the bags don't decompose in 13 weeks as the company claims. Markovich says his team placed SunChips bags in a home compost pile and tended the pile for three months, only to find at the end of the process that the bag had hardly changed. Frito Lay responded to the segment by stating that it partnered with an independent laboratory to evaluate the compostability of the packaging and received third-party certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute.

Healthy, quiet, and biodegradable. It's a tall order.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.