Have you ever found yourself halfway through an apple only to notice there is also only half a fruit sticker on it?
Relatively harmless when ingested on rare occasions, many of us have probably wondered at the poor design of these labels that litter our lives.
Not completely useless, produce stickers have their role to play. The PLU (Price Look Up) code on the label includes internationally recognized digits identifying whether the produce is organic (first number is nine), conventional (four), or GMO (eight; although this number is not required, and so is rarely seen).
Also included are numbers referring to varieties, such as Gala or McIntosh for an apple, along with the place of origin.
The labels may have a value, but this long outlasts their use; instead they end up in our stomach, garbage, compost, or environment as litter. Made to withstand moisture and friction, these stickers are designed to endure the tussles of transport.
Often vinyl, these sticky plastic labels persist on discarded peals rather than breaking down into food for the soil. Even if certified organic, they often require much more time than a composting facility allows to break down. In fact, one of the most common items found in municipal composting systems are these pesky labels, which are a headache to screen out of the finished compost.
Inevitably, they make their way as plastic contaminants into our food growing medium: soil, and research is just beginning to understand all the harmful effects of microplastics on both human health and the environment. For all these reasons, produce labels are expressly banned from compost facilities nearly everywhere.
One Powell River family of four became curious about just how many produce labels were slipping into their household. So, for 365 days, parents Joseph and Katie McLean, and their two young boys Ryan and Kevin, collected each and every one.
When the sandwich-sized hunk of labels was weighed at the finish line, it tipped the scales at 130 grams and received the proclamation from Ryan: “It’s not good. So much trash!”
What’s the pollution solution? At the moment, the easiest thing is to remove labels, elastic bands and twist ties as soon as you bring food home. Only the rare breed will be willing to once things get squishy and gross.
For now, produce labels are trash bound, unless you care to first make them into art as a sticker collage. There are a few brands that apparently turn into fruit “soap” once water is applied, which may remove the sticky residue and possible pesticides otherwise left behind.
Another solution, although admittedly tougher during winter months, is to shop at farmers’ markets and stores where quality produce does not include a sticky label. There are also some innovative solutions coming involving laser etching of thicker skinned produce. Cool, but possibly pricey for small scale operations to adapt to without funding support.
Mixing organic and inorganic materials is rarely going to end in zero waste, which is a good reminder that we need to design materials with their full cycle in mind, including their final resting place.