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What Do iPhones, Coca-Cola and SunChips Have in Common?

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The ruckus over Frito-Lay's recent decision to pull some of the compostable bags it uses for SunChips snacks is missing the point. The point is not whether compostable bags are too noisy -- that was the complaint that precipitated the bag redesign -- but whether they really are better for the environment. And the answer is, "only if they actually get composted."

The bags do crinkle loudly, though hardly like the "revving motorcycle" reported in the Wall Street Journal. But that's nothing compared to the noise being generated by this announcement. USAToday wrote a feature article that generated hundreds of scornful comments (on both sides) and later the New York Times GreenInc. blog called it a "Snacklash."

"There was so much hype when the bags were introduced," I was asked by a reporter. "Doesn't that make the move back to the old bags that much worse?"

So much hype? He'd clearly forgotten the uproar when Apple's much-heralded new phone came out with a flawed antennae. Or the massive marketing campaign for "new Coke", which was quickly pulled off the shelves when consumers didn't like the taste. Companies introduce and tweak and refine their product offerings all the time.

What's missing in this cacophany about the bags is any discussion on what it means for packaging to be "compostable." In the case of SunChips, the small print on the bags says that it is suitable for industrial composting, and that industrial composting is not available in all areas. That may be the understatement of the year.

According to Waste Age magazine, only about 2% of food waste is composted. Last summer, San Francisco passed the first large-scale municipal composting law in the nation and Seattle also mandates composting for single-family homes. But this country does not have a comprehensive composting infrastructure, so while it may feel good to have packaging that's "compostable", unless you live in San Francisco or Seattle, it's not actually being composted. Rather it ends up in landfill, where it takes as long to break down as everything else and may actually contribute more greenhouse gases than traditional plastic packaging.

And if you try putting the SunChips bag (or most other compostable packaging) in your backyard composting pile, as one of my staff did recently, you'll find that doesn't work either.

I hope that Frito-Lay and the other companies that use compostable materials will think about that in their next round of packaging design. If they're moving toward compostable packaging, they'll also need to support composting facilities that can capture the environmental benefits

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