Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Compostable Bags

I do not believe in things like ghosts or astrology or gods who care if you eat shellfish, so I feel unwaveringly confident in saying that the world is not going to end in 2012. If I did believe that, I think I’d whittle away the rest of my time at a months-long beach party in Thailand, physically and mentally removed from cable news caterwauling and any chance that I’d humiliate my mother in a whiskey mishap. I’d dance and probably ease my negative opinions on drum circles, and, as the sun collapsed over the horizon, I'd find someone to hold hands with and stand before the boiling ocean. I’d try to have my eyes open the instant before I became ash, and my ashes united with the ashes of everything else, flitting into the black sky and the ancient silence.

I’m not sure if that’s how the Mayans envisioned it, and I’m not a Roland Emmerich fan, but it doesn’t really matter, because, again, the world is not ending in 2012. In fact, the world is not ending for a long, long time, and for me, that's the problem.

Most people don't know this, but the beginning of the end of the world happened on October 5 of this year. That's the day Frito-Lay announced it was ceasing production of most of its compostable bags due to customer noise complaints. That is, full-grown adults had whined so much about the biodegradable bags' unusually loud crinkling that Frito-Lay caved and returned to housing its chips in standard, difficult-to-recycle mylar containers. It was one of the dumbest decisions made this year, and it went largely unnoticed for the abomination it was.

In the most famous scene from Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando's Colonel Walter Kurtz tells Martin Sheen's Captain Benjamin Willard about a time his Special Forces unit went on a medical mission to a small Vietnamese village:

We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. … We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember, I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn't know what I wanted to do! … And then I realized, like I was shot, like I was shot with a diamond, a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God, the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that!

I thought of Kurtz nestled in a dank cave the day I watched Frito-Lay’s good idea fall to a handful of developmentally disabled adults bitching about noisy chip bags. Just as the colonel was simultaneously enchanted and disgusted by his enemies, I, too, couldn’t help but smile at the situation: a society amidst one of the ugliest wars in history, amidst one of the ugliest political climates in history, that bands together to protest for quieter sacks of sodium treats. The stupidity behind the drive to destroy the biodegradable Sun Chips bag was hideous, to be sure, but it was also a version of stupid so profound and pure you had to find it a little awe-inspiring before weeping with disgust.

I'm sure it sounds silly to some, but I can't help but consider that day in October a significant landmark on the highway to our collective downfall. Staring at that heap of arms, Kurtz knew with instant clarity that his war was unwinnable. I got the same feeling looking at the Facebook group “SORRY, I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG.” How do you compete with a general population whose dedication to its own comfort takes precedence above all other people and things? How do you compete with billion-dollar companies that are too craven to stick up for important innovation for fear of losing a few idiots’ dollars? Also, how do you compete with a government that allows those aforementioned corporations to buy politicians who will then lord over those aforementioned people and things?

This is what we’ve become, and the Mayans were wrong: the end of the world has nothing to do with calendar dates and solstices; the end of the world belongs to who it’s always belonged to: thoughtless jerks, jerks who live out whole lives in pursuit of little more than personal prosperity and a moat with which to keep out the realities of everyday life. Knowing this, I’ve begun to think altogether differently about things like the ice caps and the rainforest. While people like to talk often and at length about both, few if any have mentioned what I think is increasingly obvious: it’s very possible we don’t deserve the ice caps, nor the rainforest, nor any of the other miracles of life we’ve already managed to forever destroy.

In thinking about the end of the world, it’s only fair to be rigorous and think about whether it would even be a bad thing. Are we as a planet so great—with our ceaseless environmental disasters, our wars, our bigotry, our rampant and intractable inequality—that our unbiased termination would be all that disastrous or unthinkable?

Something tells me Donald Trump would hate a cosmic clean slate. Kim Kardashian, too. But what about the hundreds of thousands of child prostitutes in India? Or the countless American veterans living on the streets while Holly Madison gets paid four grand to tweet that she likes high heels? Do you think they’d have a problem with someone hitting a giant reset button? Do you think a Haitian eating mud to survive would think it entirely catastrophic to know that, in 2012, everything in the whole world would burn and be equal for the first time in his life?

I posit that we—in the broadest sense of the word—are not that precious or necessary, and that we never were. And because of this, I find it hard to fear our inevitable extinction, even if that’s only a year away. What I fear far more, and what I believe to be far more probable than some prognosticated meltdown, is a gradual, personal acquiescence to our end and its ugly harbingers. I fear waking up one day and, like David Foster Wallace or Tyler Clementi, feeling as if quitting makes more sense than trying anymore to beat back the bullshit that sometimes makes it difficult to just get out of bed in the morning.

I fear not being able to look at my nephew and tell him I believe he is headed into a good and just society. I fear losing faith in the power of one. I fear no longer being able to find glimmers of joy and hope in friends’ weddings, the birth of children, the contours of a warm body next to me in bed or a hug from my mother.

I fear a lot. And though I know the world is not going to end in 2012, I’m going to spend 2011 trying to not wish that it would.

Cord Jefferson writes for The Root, Wonkette and The American Prospect.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

AudacityofDerp (#9,206)

That is one fuckin' crinkly road.

coryballs (#4,647)

I, too, weep for our misguided people. I loved those damn bags. I'd crinkle the shit out of them, deafening everyone around me as I munched my chips in satisfaction that I had at least one less thing to feel guilty about. Such a loss.

Pete29 (#5,709)

The crinkly noise claim was actually a convenient excuse for Frito Lay, one which obscured an even more important shortcoming: the bags weren't really compostable. I buried one in my compost pile in April, and it was still there in October, in its original condition.

heroofthebeach (#2,280)

Exactly. Search for photos of the bags in compost and you'll see that they barely degrade at all. This was the worst of all worlds: a terrible and noisy design, grounded in a totally false environmental claim. There are lots of microcosms of the shitty and terrible things we're doing to the world and our lethargic inability to save ourselves, but this one isn't quite it. Those bags deserved to die.

Johnnie Walker (#7,615)

Actually, the problem is twofold. My family complained much about these bags, but the fact that they weren't really compostable was not an issue. They wouldn't have cared either way. I'm not sure if this is just my anecdotal experience or representative of a larger trend, but my parents used to recycle; they stopped because it was ideologically disagreeable to them. That's what environmentalists do, Bill O'Reilley denigrates environmentalists regularly, so they stopped recycling. I'm sure they didn't pay the crinkly bags much mind until they saw some story on Fox News about the noisemaking environmentalist agenda.

The fact that these bags were just another example of green profiteering and the consume-our-way-to-a-better-world propaganda is just another drop in the Ocean of Despair.

Asa (#1,055)

So here's some geekery for you: I just re-watched Battlestar Galactica and Admiral Adama makes pretty much this same point. Sure it's terrible that the Cylons wiped out human civilization in a nuclear holocaust, but in a world where people rape and kill for greed and petty revenge, have we really proved that we deserve to exist?

It doesn't mean that I wouldn't want to jump in a Viper and take out Frito-Lay headquarters.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Paradoxically, the esoterically gorgeous phrase "whiskey mishap" fills me with a strange hope.

HiredGoons (#603)

*call me

oldtaku (#9,009)

While your general comments about our overprotected selfishness and entitlement might be right, I think the real problem here was that the bags did not actually decompose. I've seen several home experiments of it on blogs and of course there was Consumer Reports:

I guess 'people didn't like how loud they were' is less embarrassing for the company than 'we didn't really test this first.'

HiredGoons (#603)

"and I’m not a Roland Emmerich fan…"

There are Roland Emmerich fans?

Asa (#1,055)

I kind of liked 2012. It takes the genre to it's natural conclusion: "LET'S KILL ALMOST LITERALLY EVERYBODY".

kneetoe (#1,881)

Well they are compostable under the right circumstances, such as where there are high enough temperatures, but not in you backyard compost pile or in the landfill/incinerator most of them wind up in when placed in the garbage (at least in NYC garbage, and, really, who cares about non-NYC garbage?).

VixensFix (#9,211)

Thank you. There's always fine print on compostable products. There are "hot piles" that are 1. hugemungus 2. generate really high temps that will break down those corn, wheat and other compostable items that normal piles won't.

Doesn't excuse Frito Lay. A little headway is better than none.

Slava (#216)

Even putting aside the actual compostability of the bags, I can't believe someone would write such an oddly self-righteous post defending those stupid things. Like I'm supposed to feel guilty of some great human folly when I'm annoyed when some asshole on a bus is loudly distracting the whole crowd for 5 minutes just so they can eat their chips.

If next year they invent a biodegradable 'plastic' shopping bag that smells awful, will you be writing about the unending stupidity of anyone who complains about the stink?

Anyway, I can't take seriously anyone who complains about how horrible the current human condition is, without at least attempting to compare it with how things were in the past. Or anyone who says 'posit'

VixensFix (#9,211)

You think he's self righteous but have no problem letting your annoyance on a bus override the need to recycle?

Thank you for proving his point.

Slava (#216)

It's not recyclable.

VixensFix (#9,211)

There are "hot piles" that are:
1. hugemungus
2. generate really high temps that will break down those corn, wheat and other compostable items that normal piles won't.

Doesn't excuse Frito Lay. A little headway is better than none.
Composting is a form of recycling if you're breaking it down to semantics.

vie2095 (#9,215)

Long time reader, here…
I agree with slava.
I also don't quite understand how crass pop culture and American consumerism would justify the end of the world. Change is possible (especially in the developing world, now more than ever) if we're willing to put a little sweat in. These types of essays seemingly undermine the (real) progress being made.

VixensFix (#9,211)

What's the "real" progress?

Maybe we can all just agree to not eat fucking potato/corn/whateverelse chips on the fucking bus? Why does everyone need to constantly eat? Wouldn't it also be better to not eat individually packaged snacks?

migraineheadache (#1,866)

I've always enjoyed "posit" it's sort of a sign that something like Mille Plateaux is about to appear on the horizon.

I had a similar reaction when I found out the bags were being recalled – sort of the opposite of "why didn't I think of that?" I ate them on vacation and thought the loudness was hilarious since it sounded like a foley sound effect.

ep (#8,509)

Anybody who was in the presence of one of those things had to marvel that science could innovate such a truly, extraordinarily loud snack bag. But the degree of pain they inflicted was directly related to whether it was you or somebody else who was eating the delicious river-fouling fat-baked toxic Chinese chicken powder dusted chip treats they contained.

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Well put.

KarenUhOh (#19)

It's not the bags. It's the Sun Chips, and even more than that, it's Frito-Lay. The blood of the species is on all our hands: it's orange, and it tastes like Kraft Mac and Cheese.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Mmm, Kraft Mac and Cheese. Hooray apocalypse!

shawtyhaggins (#6,921)

Thank you for bringing up David Foster Wallace. That's who I was thinking about the entire time I was reading this. The Sun Chips debacle does seem like something straight out of Infinite Jest.

BadUncle (#153)

My company keeps a good supply of Sun Chips around, and everyone would get mildly irritated by the crinkly sound of the bag. But we'd butch up and soldier on for the great reward that was a mouthful of Sun Chips. And as you munch away, you can't hear a goddam thing, much less the noise of the bag. What a bunch of weak-as-veal twats Frito Lay marketers have become.

As for the end of the world, it's presumed the Mayans predicted it for 2012 because that's when their calendar stops. But my Cats! Cats! Cats! 2010 calendar ends tomorrow. So don't worry – the end is nigh.

They probably thought that maybe someone somewhere down the line would get off their ass and create some years too. Do they really have to fucking do everything around here forever? Fucks sake.

tigolbitties (#2,150)

"as the sun collapsed over the horizon, I'd find someone to hold hands with and stand before the boiling ocean."

does that mean you're single?!?!?!

Aatom (#74)

I roll my own Sun Chips.

On the topic of Sun Chips, I once ate some melted cheese topped triscuits made with one of those sun ovens and immediately got really really sick. So be careful with those.

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