What a Sun Chips Bag Says About America

Nothing good

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Remember the loud, environmentally-friendly SunChips bag? Back in August the Wire brought you a sample of the backlash, which included an Air Force pilot's video takedown of the the new product, complete with sound meter.

Responding to a shocking 11 percent decline in sales in the past 52 weeks, Frito Lay is now pulling the bag. Offering such sparkling soundbites as "we are on a journey with compostable packaging," the company is returning to the old, landfill-filling bags of yore. Environmentalists, predictably, are upset. But even those without a discernible dog in the fight subject find the story a bit perplexing: since when, they wonder, did chip bag technology become a hot-button issue? What has happened to America?

  • Why It's Loud, Why It Doesn't Have to Be  "The bags," explains Boing Boing's Maggie Koerth-Baker, "were cursed with a high glass transition temperature," i.e. temperature at which a polymer (this is true of all polymers, and the Sun Chips bag was a cornstarch version) "switches from floppy to crunchy. For the Sun Chips bags, that was, unfortunately, around normal room temp." Result? Crackly bags. "The weird thing," says Koerth-Baker, is that this didn't have to be a problem: "Boulder Canyon potato chips makes their version from a wood pulp polymer," which appears to work fine.
  • America in a Nutshell/Potato Chip Bag  "I'll admit that the bags are certainly a lot louder," writes Mother Jones's Kate Sheppard. But does that really preventing consumers from enjoying chips? "I can't think of a more absurd example of how resistant to change Americans really are," she says, going big picture to deal with compact fluorescent light bulbs and the like:
In the grand scheme of things, this is the absolute, bare-minimum level of sacrifice Americans are asked to make. They still get to eat the same chips, they just come from a different bag; they still light their homes, but with a slightly different bulb. But apparently that's still too much. Even worse is the fact that Americans can't muster the support to pass a climate bill, but a bunch of angry couch potatoes can successfully mobilize to force Frito-Lay to drop their innovative packaging. If the sound of a crinkly eco-chip bag is too much to handle, then the human species really is screwed.
  • Please Tell Me This Isn't What 'Innovation' Has Come To  The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal ruminates on the melancholy state of "hyper-competitive supercapitalism," which demands that potato chip bags are "where we put our productive talents to work," and white collar jobs are devoted to "turning out ever more complex variations on things that we already have and that work just damn fine," while "innovation [means] patenting variations on potato chips and their bags." Says Madrigal, "somewhere along the line," the system clearly got a bit out of hand:
You think with the soaring, half-serious tone that we reserve for visions of collapse: This is what happens to a country that no longer dreams, that has lost it's sense of national purpose or greatness. You think: Maybe we do need a space program, so that we start looking up again.

You imagine arch historians glossing the year: And in 2010, the most powerful country in the world was consumed with the show Glee, whether or not a political candidate was or had been a witch, and the sound of a bag of not-quite potato chips.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.