Daily Footprint, #22 – Potato Chips, Part 2: Packaging

Apparently it became all the rage in mid-19th century Saratoga Springs, NY, to carry your potato chips around the spa town, munching along the way. (See part 1 for the dubious origin story.) As restaurants and vendors began selling potato chips around the world they often packaged them in waxed paper bags. Modern bags are made from multiple layers of plastic and foil and are essentially unrecyclable (The only option that I know of is to send them to Terracycle for “upcycling”).

Bluebird wax potato chip bag, Oakland, 1950s (199 dollars on Ebay).PNG
Potato chips were sold in waxed paper bags like this around 60 years ago. You can still buy this bag – on Ebay for $199!

Of all the issues that we face as consumers, packaging seems to be the one that rattles the most cages. The Guardian recently listed plastic-wrapped bananas and apple slices as pet peeves – and rightfully so. Putting aside those ridiculous examples, my feeling is that a lot of snacks, from potato chips to nuts, dried peas, spicy chickpeas, and energy bars, could be quite sustainable if it wasn’t for the packaging. So why haven’t compostable bags taken off?

The quest for compostable snack bags

About a decade ago, PepsiCo (Frito-Lay) decided to introduce compostable packaging for their Sun Chips. Most people considered the bags to be ridiculously noisy and apparently they didn’t compost well either. This poor start almost certainly delayed the idea taking off.

Boulder Canyon (4/5 Green Stars) developed a compostable bag that was an improvement on the Sun Chips version on several levels. They were made from cellulose, derived from wood pulp from managed plantations, they composted well and were not too noisy. But they apparently didn’t sell well; Boulder Canyon scaled-back on the compostable bags (to Whole Foods stores in Illinois) and then removed them completely.

I thought my snacking dilemma was over when Ocean’s Halo (5/5 Green Stars) came out with a tasty seaweed chip in compostable packaging (discussed in part 1). Alas, they must not have sold well because they are also no longer available (in any packaging).
So, compostable bags can be made – it just seems that they haven’t caught on yet…

The Myth of the Ethical Consumer

This could be an example of the theory described in The Myth of the Ethical Consumer (you can download the full book here). The idea is that people claim to be motivated by social and environmental factors but will often make shopping choices that don’t match their ideals. I think this is to be expected in the early stages of a journey – most of us will make good choices some of the time, and at other times will let things slip. It’s a matter of awareness, on both a personal and societal level, and once things take off (as they did in the movement against plastic carrier bags) we won’t look back. Speaking of which, it’s Zero Waste Week, so this is a good time to think about packaging and our motivation to reduce it.

Some of the most ethical consumers, those living low-waste lifestyles, may not even be that interested in compostable bags because they’ve adapted to avoiding most packaged goods. I don’t generate much waste these days and I often manage to avoid the temptation to buy packaged chips by popping corn or cooking potatoes at home:
Substitute for Potato Chips: Cut a potato into 1/4 inch slices, parboil and then sauté on both sides in a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary. Voila!

But, like most people, I do still occasionally buy packaged snacks and I’d love to see compostable packaging. In the meantime, here’s one way of reducing your impact:

You’re Going to Need a Bigger Bag

Many think that the Jaws quote is “We’re going to need a bigger boat”, but it’s actually “You’re going to…” But that’s beside the point (or besides the point, if you prefer incorrect phrases, haha). My point (and I do have one) is that I came across an impressively sized bag of Luke’s organic potato chips – 800 grams (28 oz.) – and decided to compare the amount of packaging used to 35 individual 0.8 oz. bags of Popchips. Total package surface area for the giant bag is 0.34 square meters (57 x 30 cm x 2 sides) while 35 “single-serve” bags of Popchips (amounting to the same weight of chips) uses 2.86 square meters of packaging. That’s over 8 times more packaging!

Luke's Organic chips 2
The bottle of wine is just for perspective 😉 Er, I mean scale.

So there you have it, you can cut your waste by up to 90% by just buying the largest bag you can find! Larger packages also reduce carbon and material footprints for printing, packaging and transportation (distribution from the factory and also trips to the store). Another advantage of a huge bag is that you pass the point where you risk eating them all at once, so you’re actually in a better position to exercise portion control 😉
When reviewing items it’s always worth considering the amount of packaging – I usually rate a multi-pack with excess packaging at least one Green Star lower than a similar product with less packaging. And do you think it’s reasonable to say that no snack brand should get 5/5 green stars unless it comes in compostable packaging?

I’ll return to The Myth of the Ethical Consumer in a future post.

Meanwhile, here’s a brief ethical guide to potato chip brands.


13 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #22 – Potato Chips, Part 2: Packaging

  1. It’s impossible in Ireland to getcollect zero-waste crisps (potato chips) in Ireland as there is no Terracycle scheme for the bags here. There was a guy that made freshly cooked crisps without packaging from a stand at a local market but he’s dissappeared. My prob with buying the larger bag is not eating the contents in one go!

    1. Hopefully more people will start selling them in bulk. I don’t really see Terracycle as a full solution to the problem in any case – its nice that they exist but bags have to be collected and then sent to them. I’m in danger of eating them all too, but if the bags get so big (800 grams is huge!) then you pass that point where its even possible to eat them at once!

  2. Yes to all of this!!! I was so sad when Sun Chips stopped coming in compostable packaging; even with all of its flaws that was a good plan. I think we need to make a concerted effort to get local governments to ban noncompostable plastic packaging. That might be the fastest way to force all of these companies to open their eyes.
    And oh my, that is a giant bag of chips.

    1. Lol. Yes – I’m still working on that bag 😉 One can last a month!
      I agree on the non compostable bags. I think the UK (and others, I hope) are close to initiating a ban on non compostable coffee cups.
      And in the meantime there’s nothing stopping any company from switching to compostable snack bags – the only thing in their way is profit. So consumer support for the idea is key!
      Thanks for your comments – I enjoyed your last post 🙂

      1. It’s always the idea of profit that wins out. 😢 I’m so glad that the UK is close to enacting a ban, I’ll have to look into that.

        And thanks for reading my last post! 🙂 I’m definitely considering entering that review contest of yours!

        1. And there are some companies doing the right thing (usually the smaller ones) so its good to remain hopeful in humanity. Its never to late to change.

  3. Hi I really liked your article, it seems you have really good fact and figures about packaging and waste, would love to connect with you on email

  4. thanks for the article. I too am looking for better packaging. are there any updates or sources for something better?
    you may want to check your math on the packaging example. 1 square meter is 10000 square cm .

    1. Thanks Brian! And thanks for the correction – I’ve moved the decimal points 🙂
      I’ve been keeping an eye out (and also had a discussion with a snack company and a packaging manufacturer about it) but haven’t come across anything new lately. Have you?

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