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.

  • Sue

    Hello Jennifer,

    Great article on the “Next Wave in Composting.” I’ve read that composting is really an easy
    approach to reducing kitchen waste. I also read you can purchase a specific type of
    worm that helps to accelerate the composting process. I think if people did this along with
    other recycling; they could reduce their garbage considerably.

    I’ve been thinking about trying this composting technique on kitchen waste to help
    create nutrient enriched soil for planting.

    The “SunChips” concept is really interesting and a step forward in the right direction.

    BTW-Their chips are excellent and not greasy like some chips I’ve eaten!

    Thanks.

  • lynne

    boy oh boy is it ever noisey!!!!i willnot buy any chips in any other type bag. good job frit0lay!

  • Roxanne

    Monsanto update: Sun Chips and the new compostable bag?? is made from GMO corn – not the sort of thing that you want to put into your compost bin:-s

  • Pat

    just a reminder if you use fertilizers on your lawn such as scott’s turf builder plus halts. It is not good to put the grass clippings in your compose pile. Good article.

  • Anita

    Roxanne, what is your source of information regarding the bag being made from GMO corn?

  • Greg

    Hi Roxanne: What is GMO, and why is it not good for composting?

  • http://www.silent-spring.com/blog Thomas @Silent Spring

    Great article. But 1.3 pounds of food scraps daily? That’s quite a bit of food. However not everybody has the time and facilities to put together a compost heap to recycle the food. There’s no way to really compress the process is there?

  • tabitha

    GMO stands for: genetically modified organisms

  • http://soilbuilders.wikispaces.com/ derek visser

    yes there is a much faster way to compost, without causing Co2 emissions, it is done anaerobically, only takes a few weeks, and originates in japan, the place famous for the one straw revolution book.
    check this out: http://www.bokashicycle.com/howitworks.html

  • thomas

    I think it’s time you retract this article, as this so called environmentally friendly bag is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, do not put this in your compost bin and by all means read more about genetically modified organisms and foods.

  • http://www.paradisebayresort.net James Post

    I own a small ECO resort in the Caribbean and would like to share with you what impact composting has in a hotel – where food waste is comparatively much higher than in a household.

    After we implemented composting as part of a broad package of sustainable measures (interested hoteliers check http://www.paradisebayresort.net/html/eco.html) we used 1-2 big garbage bins per week. Now one every 2-3 weeks. As we pay per bin there is also a direct financial advantage that far overcompensates the extra labor cost.

    But there is more: we ultimately use the composted material as organic fertiliser and do not have to buy fertiliser anymore.

    I cannot believe that so few hotels are on the composting track!

  • http://www.crazyaboutcompost.com tyler

    Lots of valid points here. I think genetically modified food has really gotten out of control, and I’m not sure there’s anything to do about it to reverse it. With compost, unless you’re going to use your finished product to grow food, it’s not nearly as much of a concern.

    Personally, I just enjoy composting to make my landfill trips even smaller and less frequent, and you can use the finished product to top dress around the yard.

    I’m about to make a video with a Sun Chips bag amongst other “weird” items that some may not realize they can compost. I’m putting the material in a proper tumbler, and I’m curious to see how long it takes to break down.

    Also, to Thomas: the minimum amount of time and facilities is to dig a small hole in your yard and throw your food scraps in it. If you do nothing to it, eventually it will still break down. If you spend about a minute every other day, you can have amazing compost quite easily.

    Great article Jennifer, and happy composting!

    -tyler

  • produce guy

    I have a compost pile in the back yard and i put 2 of these bags in,the first one I cut it into strips and the 2nd. one I put it whole.I put these about a foot down in the pile back in April of this year2010,since then I’ve put several bags of leaves and grass clippings in alog with water and many worms.I recently gave the pile a good turning this month (sept) and the bags still look the same.I’m just wondering how long these will actually take,I think about another year.
    PS- my pile gets up to 110-140 degees

  • http://CompostingandGMO's Steven

    I have just read an article ( http://orgprints.org/5858/1/5858.pdf ) that seems to indicate that composting may be a reliable way to dispose of GMO based items. They do indicate that it is NOT conclusive and that more research is needed. They do give us hope in breaking the cycle though.