The Next Wave in Composting

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No matter where you fall on the “green” spectrum, whether you’re an avid environmentalist or simply in your initial research phase, it’s hard to deny that composting is becoming the talk of the town.

Composting is often considered one of the most effective sustainable activities, essentially creating a “recycling” system for food scraps and yard waste in your own backyard.

A SunChips bag in action as it breaks down in a compost pile. According to the U.S. EPA, 44.8 million tons of food scraps and yard waste reach our landfills each year – all of which could potentially be collected and reused through composting or mulching programs.

According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), only 8 percent of Americans compost their waste, including residents in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, where composting is part of the general waste pickup.

While composting is on the rise, it still has a long way to go in terms of reaching the level of popularity of other sustainable activities.

Products that are compostable are also increasing in availability, but their reviews have been mixed. Confusion and questions about what to do with these products are sometimes stopping points for consumers, especially the requirement that most compostable products have to go to a commercial facility.

But one well-known brand is looking to change all of that by not only modifying what you can toss in your compost, but also by raising awareness about, and enthusiasm for, this super-green activity.

Quick overview of composting

Before we get started, let’s lay down the basics of what composting is and why you should consider taking part in it.

Composting is the natural process of decomposition, sped up by a deliberate strategy in a concentrated environment to transform ingredients such as grass clippings, vegetable scraps, newspaper and more into a new material that can then be incorporated back into the soil.

In the environment of a compost pile – which is typically around 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) and 90 percent relative humidity – microbes, heat and water all work together in a balanced fashion to decompose organic materials into a nutritious soil amendment.

Although there are truly many benefits to composting, below are a few major highlights of why this eco-activity is worth a second glance:

  • Enhancing the soil – Composting reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, increases nutrient and water retention, improves aeration and adds beneficial organisms to your soil.
  • Reducing waste output – The U.S. EPA estimates that each American throws away an average of 1.3 pounds of food scraps daily – translating to almost 13 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste (MSW) stream. Additionally, when including yard waste, 24 percent of our MSW is organic material that can be composted. Therefore, the savings in both amount of material sent to landfills, and the cost to get it there, is extraordinary.

*Editor’s note: For a handy guide on how to get started with your own compost pile, check out our “Cheat Sheet: Composting” below.

A ‘consumer-led initiative’

SunChips is a brand that has consistently focused on various aspects of healthy living since its inception – from whole grains to alternative energy, this snack has strived to be both good and good for you. However, a few years ago, the folks at SunChips began receiving consistent feedback that threw the company into an entirely new direction.

“‘We always heard from people regarding every sustainable initiative we did, for example when we launched our solar project, they would say, ‘This is great, we’re glad you’re doing it, but what about your packaging?’” said Jennifer Saenz, brand manager for SunChips. “It’s the most visible thing for consumers. You enjoy the product and at the end you’re faced with this bag and have no alternative [but to throw it out].”

Saenz said SunChips took this feedback and began taking steps to change its packaging, noting that it was “very much a consumer-led initiative.”

However, the process of developing an entirely new way of packaging something is not simple.

“It was a multi-year process and took very creative engineers and suppliers from all over the world to really invent solutions that didn’t exist before,” said Saenz who noted that not only did the SunChips engineers work on the issue, but also the suppliers with whom they work. “It was a group effort across the entire supply chain.”

Setting a new bar

But what was the company hoping to make? Simply put, SunChips sought to create a bag that was not only compostable, but compostable in home piles – a concept yet to be achieved by any other packaging product.

When asked if there was ever a time when SunChips wasn’t sure if it could reach that goal, Saenz simply laughed, replying, “At no point would anyone at Frito-Lay [who owns SunChips] give up on an initiative – it’s not part of our culture. Failure was not an option.”

“It never would have occurred to us to give up on a project [...] From that standpoint we were always laser-focused on creating a package solution that worked.”

And the packaging does work, according to its certification by the Biodegradable Products Institute, as well as research from Woods End Labs, a highly recognized name in the composting arena.

“For us, we wanted to make sure that we were being very authentic and true to consumers and recognizing that industrial composting isn’t widely available around the country – ensuring that our bag was compostable at home makes it something everyone could take advantage of,” Saenz said.

On average, a SunChips bag composts over a period of about 14 weeks.

Walking the walk

According to Saenz, home composting initiatives became the standard at SunChips, spreading throughout its parent companies.

“We’ve always been a very sustainable brand,” she said, noting that SunChips has been working to increase the awareness of composting throughout Frito-Lay and all of Pepsico (Frito-Lay’s parent company). “In fact, SunChips sponsored composting programs for well-known brands such as Quaker and Pepsi.”

For Saenz, the composting program wasn’t a shift in corporate beliefs, but rather “a continuation and reinforcement of a culture of sustainability that already existed.”

And while Frito-Lay is looking to improve its packaging across the company, SunChips’ main focus right now is to promote composting and increase participation across the country.

“Certainly we’re hoping that more people adopt the practice of composting,” said Saenz. “When we’ve looked at other countries that have adopted it at a more mainstream level like Canada and the U.K, it came about because of a groundswell of backyard composting [...] It becomes a more common behavior throughout communities.”

“We’re hoping that we raise awareness of the benefits of composting and show people they can actually make a difference.”

Tips from the expert

Even Saenz herself began composting when SunChips started down this road to create an entirely new way of thinking about packaging its chips.

“Don’t be afraid to start, it’s much simpler than you think,” she recommends. “And don’t be afraid to mess up, because you will. It’s an easy process, but it also takes a little bit of time to feel like you’re an expert at it.”

For Saenz, composting helped open her eyes to her inner biologist. “It’s a really fun process, and it actually kind of brings out the nerd in everyone, I think. It fascinates you.”

And beyond curiosity, admiration for the natural world was a result of her green endeavors as well.

“It just brought out an appreciation of nature in me. It makes you think even more broadly about the behaviors you do at home,” she said.

“Years back, you didn’t think twice when you put garbage on the corner – there ended your relationship with your trash. But when you throw something away it doesn’t just end there, there’s a much larger impact,” Saenz explained.

“Being able to have some influence on the end-result of the product feels very empowering, even in a small way.”

Read more
Cheat Sheet: Composting
How to Compost Outside the Home
What “Bio” Really Means

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. SunChips is one of these partners.

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