Greening of Junk Food

This can only wrench a wry smile from from your lips.

At Frito-Lay’s factory here, more than 500,000 pounds of potatoes arrive every day from New Mexico to be washed, sliced, fried, seasoned and portioned into bags of Lay’s and Ruffles chips. The process devours enormous amounts of energy, and creates vast amounts of wastewater, starch and potato peelings.

Vacuum hoses at an Arizona plant recapture water and reduce the amount of heat needed to cook potato chips.

Now, Frito-Lay is embarking on an ambitious plan to change the way this factory operates, and in the process, create a new type of snack: the environmentally benign chip.

Its goal is to take the Casa Grande plant off the power grid, or nearly so, and run it almost entirely on renewable fuels and recycled water. Net zero, as the concept is called, has the backing of the highest levels of corporate executives at PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay.

Green Chips!

We smile because it seems so odd, this idea of cleaning up the world while still pumping out billions of tons of stuff we don’t really need, and which, in the case of potato chips, are almost synonymous with ‘junk food.’ But then I have to smile at myself for my smile. It shows that I view human behavior as a seamless cloak when in fact it is a patchwork quilt of contradictory motivations, responses to pushes and pulls, rationality trying to mix into emotionality like vinegar into oil.

It turns out, that accepting Global Climate Change as a danger, is not a Damascus moment for most. It does not lead to complete changes of lives, to the rending of clothes and eating only what drops from trees. It leads to incremental changes — just what seems necessary, just what will get us by, just what — in this case– will shore up profitability.

As Robert Reich has argued, these go-to-green guys should not be praised for their morality and new care-for-the-earth sensibility. That’s not what it is about, mostly. They should be praised though — for re-reading their balance sheets, understanding the costs of energy burned and energy wasted, and understanding that their markets are changing, that people want not just the cheap but the good. Their customers — even those who can’t keep their fingers out of the potato chips — actually do want to pass on the world to their kids though it’s hard to put that into quantifiable value. So praise is due for being smart businessmen, albeit belatedly. Urging is due that they get on with it faster.

So it’s ok with me. I’d rather have less junk, and I’d rather have the junk produced closer to the consumers from raw materials closer to them. But, I’d a lot rather have the water re-cycled and the heat captured, and the solar panels arrayed in these existing mega-plants than not.

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