The Consumer Scoop on SunChips' 100 Percent Compostable Packaging

Here on TreeHugger, there’s been tons of mention about Ingeo—the renewable material being used in products like high-end clothing, pens, lipstick tubes, computers and other electronics.

Some companies are dabbling with the idea and others are taking it full throttle—like the snack brand, SunChips—who has teamed up NatureWorks, a company creating Ingeo products—to create 100 percent compostable packaging by 2010.

So what exactly is Ingeo? And is it really any good? Read ahead to get the dirt from NatureWorks’ Director of Communications, Steve Davies—who tells us what Ingeo packaging means for us hungry consumers in this exclusive interview. TreeHugger: What is Ingeo? What plants does it derive from?

Steve Davies: Ingeo is not made from oil, and instead, is 100 percent annually renewably resourced. Today, Ingeo™ currently uses plant sugars from field corn as the source material for manufacture. I'd emphasize though, that this innovation is a journey, where corn is only the starting point, not the destination--Ingeo™ can be made from any abundantly available sugar.

TH: Ingeo is referred to as a biopolymer. Please explain in laymen's terms.

SD: Simply put, materials which are either bio-based, or "biodegradable"/compostable after use, can both be labeled as biopolymers. Ingeo is both (it's bio-based and compostable with the right infrastructure) and so presents an interesting value proposition for designers, and brands, depending on the products in which they're using it, and the after use/recovery options that are available for that product.

TH: You mentioned that Ingeo is made from plant sugars derived from field corn. Corn cultivation is often accused of being genetically modified and pesticide rich. How is NatureWorks confronting this?

SD: The manufacture of Ingeo™ does not require genetically modified (GM) materials. The Ingeo™ biopolymer is made from plant based sugars as its source and is certified by Genescan to contain no genetic material of any kind. However current US corn grown produces a mixed stream of GM and conventional corn. To address variable market demands around the world relating to this issue, NatureWorks offers three certified sourcing options:

Genescan Certified: NatureWorks has made sure that their unique Ingeo™ resin and the dextrose feed stock material used exclusively in its manufacture does not contain any GMO material at all due to the high heat used in the basic manufacturing process. Ingeo™ is certified to be free of any genetic material by GeneScan Inc., recognized by both government and NGOs as the leading authority for testing food, feed and raw materials.

Source Options: NatureWorks gives real choices and takes the extra steps needed for those customers who want other options by purchasing a crop weight equivalent to customers needs and mixing this in a stream of conventional and GM corn grown in the area. While it is not possible to sort the streams, for customers who so choose, NatureWorks replaces the purchase of GM corn with corn which is source certified and guaranteed non-modified.

Identity Preserved: NatureWorks offers a choice that shows their commitment to innovation, an Ingeo™ biopolymer production batch made from identity preserved conventional corn sources to satisfy our retail customer’s particular needs in this sensitive area. The customer commitment to production is contingent on following longer lead times and guaranteed volumes to accommodate appropriate farm to production commitment on a single batch.

TH: How is your Ingeo being farmed?

SD: Today, these plant sugars are derived from field corn that is already grown for many industrial and functional end-uses. In context, Ingeo™ uses less than 1/20th of 1 percent (0.05 percent) of the annual global corn crop today, and as such contributes little to no impact on international or local food chains. Ingeo™ doesn’t require corn, it only needs a sugar source, whatever is most readily available depending on the geography. In the future, Ingeo™ will be made from cellulosic raw materials, agricultural wastes and non-food plants. Indeed, NatureWorks’ commitment to responsible innovation means there is a long term plan is to transition the current raw material supply to one which uses a new carbohydrate feedstock. This will be a change to residual biomass as the new raw material for Ingeo™ production. This is a key part of the Ingeo™ journey to responsible innovation by offering more tailored sourcing options, while expanding and supporting the growth of the biopolymer industry by making it possible to manufacture from multiple sites around the world.

TH: With SunChips being one of your biggest clients, what impresses you most about the company's green steps?

SD: What's been impressive is that they've taken the first steps. That while they don't have a 100 percent Ingeo structure today, which is fully compostable, their first step, launching now, replaces 1/3 of the nonrenewable materials in the bag, and they've firmly set their sites on, and are fully committed to having a 100 percent Ingeo structure by this time in 2010.

TH: SunChips packaging is currently composed of 33 percent Ingeo material? What does this mean to consumers? Can they compost it?

SD: Today's bag cannot be composted, that's what Sun Chips have committed to by 2010. What it means to consumer's today is that with their purchase choice of Sun Chips in the Ingeo bag, they're already today, choosing a product which is renewably based, and which has a lower carbon footprint than the petroleum bag.

TH: In 2010, when the packaging is fully compostable, what do consumers need to know?

SD: A couple of things; they need to know that the bag will fit all existing systems, and that they don't need to do anything different with it. That said, if they so choose—and we believe more and more consumers will choose this—as awareness continues to grow, they can compost it, following the simple instructions that Sun Chips are providing for a hot, active compost.

TH: Is the SunChips bag still of benefit even if it's not composted?

SD: Absolutely, and this goes back the front end benefits—where Ingeo comes from. With the conventional chip bag, you’re taking fossil based fuels out of the ground, and converting them into packaging with the associated generation of green house gas to the atmosphere during that production process. By marked contrast, with an Ingeo bag, you're essentially taking greenhouse gas (carbon as CO2), out of the atmosphere, using it to grow the plant, harvesting those plant sugars, and then turning that same carbon into the packaging. That's a big idea!

TH: Will SunChips make the compost-factor (how-to instructions) loud and clear on its packaging? (I've noticed that some of the corn-based "biodegradable" products I've been given--from disposable cups to pens--sadly, don't mention anything of the sort. If I didn't know any better, I'd chuck them into the trash thinking they'd biodegrade naturally.)

SD: Sun Chips of course, will do a super job of this. In general though, we totally understand your concern, and we spend a lot of time working with end users, with brands and retailers, to make sure that their Ingeo based products are being authentically marketed to the consumer, that the claims being made are absolutely relevant to the product, and the local infrastructure. We work hard to make sure that there is no greenwashing, and have conducted rigorous, third party validated life cycle analysis of Ingeo, and on many of the end products being made from it. We work hand in hand with the brands in conducting life cycle analysis, so that we fully understand the impact on their specific product.

TH: What's one piece of advice you can offer to consumers about packaging? What's one thing we should we look for and what's one thing we should avoid?

SD: First, to understand that some packaging is a good thing, that with food especially, it cuts down substantially on food waste (counter to the idea that all packaging is our nemesis!). That said, we encourage consumers to look for products that aren't 'overpackaged' (the classic example of three layers of packaging, when one is all that's needed), and to look hard at what the packaging type is—is it petroleum based? Or is it renewably based—whether Ingeo, or for example, post consumer recycled paper, etc.? All of these are better steps in the right direction.

TH: And finally, since today is Earth Day--do you have any final thoughts on the day? Is there something that you're company—or maybe others in the eco-community are doing--that's leaving you inspired?

SD: The Frito Lay bag, Earth's Best brand Ingeo Baby Diaper (now on shelves nationally at Babies R Us and Toys R Us) and the Apple iTunes card, where they've replaced PVC plastic. These are wonderful examples where mainstream products have been remade, in a fundamentally more responsible way!

More on Ingeo:
Salewa's Jummy Ingeo shirt
Buns of Corn: SkirtSports and Sorona
Corn-based Pens

Tags: Bioplastics | Composting | Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Green Packaging