You’re going for a hike this weekend and you need a portable, healthy snack. As you do your normal grocery run, you grab a delicious banana from the rack. To pay for the banana, you scan a produce sticker with a four or five-digit code.
The next day when you’re on the trail, hunger pangs appear, so you grab that banana and dig in. What happens to that seemingly innocuous sticker?
If it’s one of the ubiquitous plastic produce stickers used around the world mainly for quality control, the end result is far from eco-friendly. Nonetheless, as you’ll see below, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What are produce stickers for? In the 1960s, a Washington-based farmer named Tom Mathison found a handy way to promote his organic produce from Stemilt Growers: produce stickers. Mathison included the name of his farm and later added a logo to these small quarter-sized stickers to show that his produce was organic.
Produce stickers quickly took off. In the 1990s, four-digit PLU (price look up) codes were added to make identification easier by storing important information like price, type and origin. Produce stickers not only help the grower promote their offerings; they help prevent food waste at big grocery chains by facilitating accurate inventory tracking.
Mathison meant well when he invented these stickers. He was considered an icon of the Washington fruit industry and he believed in paying growers sustainable prices that ensured they could continue growing high-quality produce for the world to enjoy. And although these stickers do cut food waste, by way of their characteristics and their use, they also introduce waste of their own.
Why are produce stickers bad for the planet? Although most produce stickers do cut food waste by enhancing inventory tracking, by way of their characteristics and use, they also introduce waste of their own.
The most common type of produce sticker is made from petroleum-based plastic. That in and of itself is a problem. Plastic isn’t biodegradable, and we have a global plastics crisis that threatens to overtake the climate crisis as the world’s most urgent environmental threat.
It’s made worse by what can happen when you dispose of that sticker. If you compost fruit or vegetable scraps, the stickers can accidentally end up with the scraps since they’re so small. But plastic can’t be composted, and the industrial equipment used at composting facilities for screening and contaminant removal often can’t catch such small materials. Some facilities dedicate resources to manually removing the stickers, but this process isn’t foolproof. Stickers become visual eyesores and, more alarmingly, a microplastic that will never break down naturally. In the end, compost that’s meant to enrich soils in gardens, farmland, and parks is littered with pesky sticker remnants that degrade the compost.
Thus, we can’t dismiss plastic produce stickers as a trivial environmental problem because of their size. Your individual sticker footprint might be minimal, but you’re not the only one buying produce with stickers. In 2019, the average American consumed more than 150 pounds of fresh vegetables and 115 pounds of fresh fruit. A huge chunk of that produce will be stickered up.
When produce meant for composting is diverted to landfills, the environmental consequences are enormous. Composted produce typically decomposes in the presence of oxygen, leaving behind carbon dioxide that can nourish plants and sequester carbon in soil. That same produce at a landfill instead decomposes into methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas that’s far more potent as a heat-trapping atmospheric substance than carbon dioxide.
As you can see, this is an obstacle in the greater quest to reduce waste and protect our planet. But stickers need not be an enemy in the war against waste. Thankfully, sustainable solutions do exist for these stickers.
If you come across a plastic produce sticker, you should remove the sticker from the produce before eating it and then send that sticker to a landfill, where it unfortunately belongs. That way, the produce can be composted without being contaminated by the sticker.
But the onus should not be on you. It should be on the food industry, which has a bevy of potential sustainable solutions to the pesky produce sticker problem.
There are several other alternatives to plastic produce stickers. Laser etching is good for produce with thick rinds but can be expensive. Direct printing is a potential solution, although it is difficult for rough produce such as pineapple. Paper stickers are more eco-friendly than plastic but unfortunately don’t stand up to the conditions fruit is stored in.
Compostable produce stickers made from bioplastics can stand up to the same conditions as petroleum-based plastic stickers. The sticker matches the intended end-of-life solution for the fruit peel or veggie scraps, and they can be safely put in the compost bin together. These stickers, including the ink and adhesive, are both biodegradable and compostable. Bioplastic is flexible as well as water, grease and oil resistant, making it ideal for use as produce stickers. It performs almost exactly the same as conventional plastic but also breaks down at end-of-life as part of a healthy compost pile.
The benefits of compostable stickers are key. Composting facilities have identified non-compostable produce stickers as one of their five most persistent contaminants according to a Washington report on contamination. Compostable stickers mitigate methane emissions and help sequester carbon, an overlooked but tremendous opportunity to reduce global heating. And using compostable stickers could allay cost and logistical challenges to adoption for both retailers and packers, leading to downstream benefits that make composting more viable both within the produce world and far beyond.
Plastic produce stickers were a revolutionary, well-intended invention. However, as we grow increasingly aware of the harms inflicted by such non-biodegradable products, we can turn to sustainable solutions like compostable stickers that keep our environment safe and put smiles on our faces as we enjoy healthy, tasty, sustainably grown produce.
Rich Cohen is the founder of Elevate Packaging.
This piece has been updated.