Those loud crackling sounds made the Sun Chips bag one of the most talked- and blogged-about snack packages of all time when it came out in December 2009. Undoubtedly it was the only one ever singled out for noise pollution.
Less than a year later, Frito-Lay North America Inc. pulled the biodegradable bags, made from polylactic acid resin, off the market.
But don't call the Sun Chips bag a failure, said Robert Cotton, Frito-Lay senior manager of packaging materials and quality. For one thing, earlier this year, the snack foods giant rolled out its quieter version of the PLA bag for Original Sun Chips. Other flavors have returned to the snack maker's standard oriented polypropylene bags.
Frito-Lay got tons of publicity from the PLA package, as consumers alternately blasted and praised the bag, then the decision to stop making it.
But Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay, part of PepsiCo Inc., will keep on innovating, Cotton said during the Society of Plastics Engineers' Antec conference in Boston, held May 1-5.
Cotton is aware that at the height of the public awareness of the loud PLA bags, some of the social-media comments got pretty nasty.
One of the often-repeated questions that came up [in social media] was, 'Hopefully somebody got fired over this.' I wanted to make a point: We all got promoted. Every one of us has got a promotion out of this. And it's because you don't get fired for doing something. You get fired for doing nothing, Cotton said.
Take a stand and do something. That's what gets rewarded in corporate America, is trying something. It's really easy to sit back and say no, it'll never work, don't do anything.
Cotton spoke at a May 4 Antec session on flexible packaging innovations. He also participated in a panel on how the trade press handles green product claims.
In a 30-minute talk, Cotton recounted the Frito-Lay Sun Chips bag saga.
First, he explained the company's standard snack bag: inner and outer layers of OPP, sandwiching a middle adhesive layer of polyethylene. But he pointed out that Herman Lay did not use that type of package back in the 1930s when he delivered potato chips out of the trunk of his car.
His point: Flexible packaging is infinite in terms of the materials that are used, in terms of the possible solutions. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution. Again, within the PepsiCo family, we have just about every package I can think of. We have metal cans for bean dip. We have glass jars for salsa. We have paperboard boxes for Quaker cereal. We have everything, including PET bottles to our flexible bags.
Frito-Lay promotes Sun Chips as a holistic brand, he said. Two Sun Chips plants use solar power.
PLA bags really fit with the brand, Cotton said. When the compostable Sun Chips package hit store shelves, We received more positive feedback than any pillow bag we've ever had in our product portfolio, he said.
But then the negative comments started. A YouTube video, called Potato Chip Technology That Destroys Your Hearing, went viral, when J. Scot Heathman crinkled a Sun Chips bag in front of a decibel meter.
One of the most common blogged-about things was: Did we really know it was loud? Cotton said. Yes, they did.
It was very obvious that we were working on it diligently since the very beginning and trying to address those noise issues. However, we launched because we wanted to get it out there. We felt that the benefits outweighed any of the negatives, he said.
If you wait till something's perfect, you'll never launch. So you've got to take that first step, and that's what we did, he said.
The Wall Street Journal ran a Page 1 story Aug. 18: Snack attack: Chip eaters make noise about a crunchy bag. The Today Show picked it up. Comedian Stephen Colbert weighed in, and not only on the loudness issue: I don't want my snack packaging to decompose; that's a chilling reminder of my own mortality. My garbage is my legacy.
When Frito-Lay pulled the PLA bag back, the virtual world blasted away again, from another angle, and the move made newspaper headlines across the country.
There were a lot of blogged-about things that we've pulled back, we're abandoning the program all that sort of stuff, Cotton said. But realistically, you're just seeing real-world R&D in the consumer space.
All that time, Frito-Lay was working with its suppliers on a solution. Cotton said people in the flexible packaging industry contacted the company with many suggestions. We did hundreds and hundreds of variables, he said.
The snack researchers hit on the adhesive layer, which they found plays a key role in transmitting or damping the sound from the PLA film layers.
Finally, after six months in the laboratory, Frito-Lay brought out the new, quieter PLA Sun Chips bag. The company made its own YouTube video. Cotton said they sent free bags of chips in the new bags to Facebook and YouTube commentators. The new bag also made TV and newspapers.
And Cotton said Frito-Lay's PLA efforts have helped pave the way for other bioresin snack packaging. He cited Snyder's of Hanover and Boulder Canyon Natural Foods.
What we've been able to do, just given our sheer scale and size and market position, is transform the category. It's a very slow process, he said.
This year, Cotton said, his goal is to see how PLA can be more cost-effective in chip bags, by improving production efficiency and yields. Frito-Lay officials will continue to monitor consumer feedback. They are studying sales data from the Original Sun Chips vs. the other flavors, to see if the packaging makes a difference in consumer demand.
I don't think what you see on the shelf is the final form it's going to continue to evolve. This is just part of the journey, he said.