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Let’s hear it for the sound of compostable packaging

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 23-Aug-2010
Last updated on 13-Sep-2010 at 15:49 GMT

The world’s first 100 percent biodegradable chip packet attracted a lot of noise last week, but not the buzz that SunChips’ maker FritoLay had been hoping for.

Nearly 40,000 people have signed up to a Facebook group criticizing the packaging material, plant-based polylactic acid (PLA), for being too loud. It is said to biodegrade in as little as 14 weeks, while conventional chip packets typically take over 100 years.

Can there really be 40,000 people who would prefer to add to our ever-growing mountain of waste than buy an extra-crispy chip packet? Are we really that shallow?

Sadly, it seems so.

“The loudest, most annoying bag on the planet.” That’s how one Facebook user describes the new compostable SunChips bag – and she’s not alone. But its makers are doing a great job of rejecting the ruckus.

Backed into a corner, the company has incorporated the reaction into its marketing strategy, attaching signs to store shelves that read: “Yes, the bag is loud. That’s what change sounds like.”

Nicely played, I say.

“Worst chip bag for stoners”

Among the more common complaints, fans of the SORRY BUT I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUNCHIPS BAG Facebook page claim that the bag does not allow them to indulge in midnight snacking without waking others in the house; the bag scares their pets; and a fair number of marijuana smokers say that the noise is freaking them out, man.

Albeit in a depressing way, it’s a funny story, so the anti-crunch crusade has been helped on by the media, with the Today Show mocking the bags for being louder than a New York subway train.

The sound of change

But there are lessons to be learned here. Despite the fracas from froth-mouthed Facebook fanatics, most of us would welcome more biodegradable packaging.

Market research organization Mintel recently found that 43 percent of consumers said they were likely to buy SunChips on the back of their strong eco-friendly positioning.

However, the question Mintel didn’t ask is how many would still buy SunChips if the package is eco-friendly and annoying. FritoLay should have asked that question earlier.

One posting typical of those on the Facebook group reads: “1 week after the change I stopped buying SunChips. Used to eat 2-4 bags a week. No more! I want silence to sit and enjoy my snack, not an evil bag that makes horrible noise even sitting still!!!!!”

That’s a hardcore chip-eater, and he’s angry.

Time to listen up

This is not the first time a social network has spoken up about their dislike of a product and companies are beginning to realize that they need to listen.

PepsiCo (incidentally FritoLay’s parent company) had a similar experience with its Tropicana juice packaging, which drew such heavy criticism via Twitter that the company withdrew the new design just weeks after it was introduced. Talk about an expensive gaffe.

This is not just a repeat of that blunder – this time the stakes are higher.

Compostable packaging is an important innovation. FritoLay cannot withdraw the packaging without upsetting the (hopefully many) people who actually care that it has developed a product to help deal with our mountainous waste problem. Its challenge now is to ensure that doing the right thing remains profitable.

Bravo to FritoLay for its reaction so far. The company now says it is actively trying to address the issue, and is currently working on quieter packaging.

As its researchers look for a solution I, for one, applaud their work. Please join me so they can hear over this SunChips bag.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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