Testing Package Compostability Claims: Week 2

Published on October 7th, 2010 | by

Boulder Canyon, Doritos, and SunChips bag in compost pile

One week ago, I buried two 100% compostable bags (one made from tree fiber and the other most likely from corn), along with a Doritos bag for control, in my compost pile. I wanted to see what would happen in a real environment, in the type of compost pile most people have, and how useful “compostable” bags really are.

As you can see, the bags are still there. Then again, so would a sheet of paper. Even the grass has barely started decomposition in that amount of time. But what’s notable to me is what you cannot really see in the picture. The Boulder Canyon bag, which is made from tree fiber, is wet almost through and through. The SunChips bag is just as crinkly and dry as it was one week ago.

While this is not a scientific experiment, from the layman’s eyes, the tree fiber bag appears to already be starting on the path to decomposition.  Once tree fiber is wet, it begins to fall apart. This speeds the decomposition even more.

As I reported last week, SunChips is pulling its compostable packaging because of consumer complaints about the noise. It is currently working on new packaging.

The Boulder Canyon bags are quiet—even quieter than traditional bags. If SunChips had used a tree-fiber-based substrate as Boulder Canyon did, noise never would have been an issue. Plus, to the average person, the fiber-based has the appearance of rapid break-down. In packaging and consumer products, appearance is everything.

This makes me wonder why SunChips didn’t just go with fiber-based bags to begin with. Did it want to maintain visual continuity with competitive products? Was it an issue of substrate performance? SunChips are sold in much higher volumes and likely need to be stored for longer periods of time. Perhaps tree-fiber-based bags did not provide the stay-fresh power of corn-based substrates.

Whatever the reason, it is interesting to watch these bags decompose side by side. For now, the weather in central Pennyslvania holds and decomposition is possible. It will be in the mid-60s all week, so I’ll check back in with a new photo next week.  I might even have an answer from SunChips about its substrate choice by then.


About the Author

Heidi Tolliver-Walker has been a commercial and digital printing industry analyst, feature writer, columnist, editor, and author for nearly 20 years. She is known for her meticulous research and no-nonsense perspective. In addition to having written thousands of industry articles for top industry publications, she and Richard Romano have been the face of the well-respected industry research firm The Industry Measure (TrendWatch Graphic Arts) for many years. In her more than 13-year tenure with the firm, she has written countless reports on digital printing, 1:1 (personalized) printing, Web-to-print, personalized URLs, and other hot industry applications. She is also a long-time contributing editor and columnist for Printing News, for which she writes two monthly columns, including "Personal Effects," which features monthly analysis of 1:1 (personalized) printing case studies. She is also the author of three titles for the National Association of Printing Leadership: Designer's Printing Companion, Ink & Color: A Printer's Guide, and Diversifying Via Value-Added Services. As a small, niche publisher (Strong Tower Publishing), she is active in utilizing these technologies in her own business, as well.
  • Trish

    My SunChips bag has been in my compost tumbler for nearly 2 months now and it is not showing any signs of decomposition. However the PLA plastic salad container is nearly gone and it was put in the composter only 2 weeks earlier than the SunChips bag. I have not tried to compost a Boulder Canyon bag yet but I will pick up a bag from the natural food store on my way home from work.

    • Heidi

      SunChips does say it needs to be an a “hot, active” compost pile for 14 weeks, so that’s 3 1/2 months. But you would expect to see at least some decomposition — at least the beginnings of it.

  • Shawn

    The answer to your question is price. Bags made from corn = cheaper. The Boulder folks are paying a high cost to bring a compostable bag to market that isn’t made from a heavily subsidized food source. So, the Frito folks could have had a bag just like the Boulder folks, they just didn’t want to pay for one.