I was recently organizing snacks at a neighborhood mutual aid pop-up when a fellow volunteer warned me not to touch the SunChips. “Unless you like blowing out your eardrum,” they quipped. I had no clue how to respond. I wasn’t sure if I misheard them, if they misspoke, or if this was just one of those weird social interactions that occurs after a year of isolation. Ultimately, I choked out a laugh from behind my mask and muttered, “Yeah, chip bags are loud!” They looked confused and walked away, and I kept stacking boxes of raisins.
The interaction haunted me until later that day, when I conducted a cursory Google search for “SunChips” and “eardrum.” Turns out, my fellow volunteer was referring to a SunChips packaging debacle that took place over the course of one balmy summer 11 years ago. I missed the whole thing, probably because I was too busy convincing my high school vice principal to play the uncensored version of Usher’s “DJ’s Got Us Fallin’ In Love” at homecoming that year. My research revealed two things:
1. Frito-Lay once manufactured SunChips bags that, when crinkled, released a “potentially damaging” sound that rang in at 95 decibels, or allegedly louder than an Air Force jet’s cockpit.
2. The troublesome bags were discontinued in 2010.
Some background: in 2008, SunChips maker Frito-Lay made its bags compostable. Unfortunately, this presented a fundamental design flaw. The bag, which was made with a biodegradable corn-based biopolymer called polylactic acid, was loud as hell. The Wall Street Journal explains:
The new polymers have a higher “glass transition temperature,” which is when a polymer goes from a harder, glasslike state to a rubber state. Because the transition to rubberiness happens a bit above room temperature, the bag is “kind of crispy and crunchy,” says [Brad Rodgers, Frito-Lay’s North American manager of sustainable packaging.]
“Crispy and crunchy” was an understatement. In fact, our pals at Gizmodo called the bag “hilariously, ear-damagingly loud.” WSJ reported that each bag crinkles at a level up to 95 decibels, which is about five dB higher than the level at which you need to start worrying about lasting hearing loss. (For comparison, a bag of Tostitos Scoops measured about 77 dB, while an average lawnmower runs at about 90 dB.) WSJ also quoted Air Force pilot J. Scot Heathman, who found the bag to be louder than his Air Force plane cockpit after testing the decibel level in a video titled “Potato Chip Technology That Destroys Your Hearing.”
The bag quickly became a joke, sparking Facebook groups like the one titled “SORRY BUT I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG” (still 38,000 fans strong). And at first, Frito-Lay leaned into the joke. It added stickers to supermarket shelves, pointing out that, yes, the bags were loud, but “that’s what change sounds like.” Then, in 2010, NPR reported that SunChips had decided to axe the noisy bags. The company wrote:
While there was a huge amount of enthusiasm surrounding the launch of our compostable SunChips bag, we’ve also received feedback regarding how the new packaging has affected the consumer experience, including its noise. In response, we’re taking steps to improve our 100 percent compostable bag in order to address your concerns. We have several new compostable package options in the works that look promising and look forward to introducing the next generation compostable bag to consumers in the near future.
Eleven years later, the chip’s eardrum-busting legacy remains. If you search for “SunChips” on Google, you’ll see the brand’s official tagline (“Deliciousness for all”) alongside another, cheekier tagline (“Opening the bag is louder than eating the chips”). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a noisy bag specimen to test myself. I did check in with a SunChips spokesperson to see if any noisy bags were still on the market, but have yet to hear back. In the end, the deafening chip bag has been reduced to an echo. But if you listen real close, you just might hear a phantom POP! in the distance.