Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Crunch Too Far

It's a balancing act, to be sure. Security vs. privacy. Excitement vs. safety. More taste vs. less filing. Whenever you want to do one thing, there's usually a counterweight on the other side. True, sometimes the decision is an easy one, like when you can actually get two mints in one ("It's a candy mint. No, it's a breath mint.") But more than likely you have to come down on one side or the other, and then somebody is going to be unhappy. Just ask Obama about Afghanistan, the New York Senate about same-sex marriage or Congress about anything.

Still, when Frito-Lay set out to do something good for the environment and spruce up the bag for their SunChips brand of crisps, they thought they could have it all. The chips, which are billed as being a healthier alternative to traditional potato chips with less salt, less fat and more whole grains, were a natural for some eco-friendly packaging. So back in April of 2010 the company introduced a "green" package that was billed as its first compostable snack bag. And while most of us usually prefer chips with nearby adjectives of "tasty" or "crunchy" as opposed to "compostable," anticipation at the company's home base of Plano, Texas was high.

Then the product hit the shelves. And rather than kudos from consumers, the biggest reaction was "Speak up... I can't hear you over the bag!" Turns out that while the new packaging may have been environmentally friendly in terms of landfills, that wasn't the case in terms of its contribution to noise pollution. While a normal chip bag clocks in at about 70 decibels, the new bag crinkled and crackled somewhere around 80 db, with some measurements putting it at a "deafening" 95 db. To put it into perspective, 70 db is the loudness of a conversation, while 90 db is about the level of a lawnmower. Stand on the platform of a subway, and you're enduring 95 db of noise. And since experts say that a listening to anything at a sustained level of 90 to 95 db may result in hearing loss, eating a big bag would mean you could get both fat and go deaf at the same time.

The outcry, when it could be heard, was substantial. Articles in publications such as the Wall Street Journal liked the change to such bad product moves as New Coke in 1985, and Proctor and Gamble's recoloring of Prell shampoo from green to blue in 1991. Even the "Today" show did a segment. And it wasn't just the mainstream media. On a grass roots level, a page on Facebook called "Sorry but I can't hear you over this SunChips bag" gathered over 55,000 "likes." (Some sample posts: "Every time I went to get a chip, my cats ran away terrified." "The perfect burglar alarm. Throw a couple on the floor by your front door!") In the currency of today's consumer society. that's a whole lot of static.

Frito-Lay tried to weather the storm, turning the liability into a marketing asset, by adding signs to supermarket shelves that read "Yes, the bag is loud, that's what change sounds like." But sales dropped and so they eventually gave up, retreating with their bag between their legs in October of 2010. Fast forward to earlier this year, when they rereleased the original flavor of the product with a retooled, quieter, compostable bag. Customers came back, seeming to prove that you can be environmentally friendly both below ground and in the air, and still enjoy that crunchy, multigrain goodness. If ever there were proof of better living through chemistry in today's world, this is it.

Or is it? In May, in an exclusive interview posted on, whose masthead is "Breaking News on Industrial Baking & Snacks," Brad Rodgers, Frito-Lay's R&D director, said that the bag is home compostable within the 14 week claims made by the company, but... and here's the rub... "only under a hot active composter temperature that needs to reach above 45-55 degrees Celsius." He admitted the company had received some negative feedback from some home composters, but added that others have reported the successful turning of trash into dirt.

So it comes down to this: we're all for environmental sustainability and preventing global warming, as long as it doesn't interfere with being able to hear the dialogue at a Woody Allen film. Who said modern life is easy? Or put another way, with apologies to Al Gore, I think we've settled on the very definition of an inconvenient truth.


Marc Wollin of Bedford actually likes Sun Chips over Lay's Potato Chips, as long as they come in the original flavor. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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