By Roxanne Griffin
All Photos: Harry Strharsky
If fruit & vegetables could talk-
Mr. Eggplant, “Hey Peachy, Nice tramp stamp! Sexy! Where’d you get that tat?”
Ms. Peachy, “Don’t be so fresh. And I don’t mean that in a produce kind of way either. I’ll only tell if you promise to get one because your fake plastic polluting tattoo sticker doesn’t turn me on.”
Mr. Eggplant, “It’s a deal! But only if my tat says Peachy loves me.”
To which Ms. Peachy replies, “Baba ghanoush!”
Sadly I could run with this and have a lot of fun imagining conversations between fruit and vegetables. Luckily, the above indulgence is really all I ask you to bear.
Back in May (what happened to June?) I wrote about a company called Apeel. (How a Mysterious Sticker on an Avocado Gave Me Hope (10001ways.com)) I learned about this company from a plastic sticker on an avocado. While I was encouraged by the new technology the company had to offer in keeping produce fresh and reducing plastic waste, I wasn’t thrilled it was one of those pesky plastic produce stickers making the announcement. If you are not aware of the problems related to produce labels, you may be wondering what’s the big deal. I’ll attempt to fully address your burning curiosity in three sections: history of produce stickers, problems they create, and available alternatives. I’ll end with actions you can take.
We have Tom Mathison to thank for inventing the produce sticker back in the 1990’s. Mathison (who died in 2008) was a regional grower of organic produce in Washington State. He wanted something to distinguish his organic produce so it would stand out in the marketplace. It didn’t take long before his idea gained global appeal and was adopted by multi-national producers and grocery store chains. While the rationale for their use is stickers help speed up the check-out process and provide consumers with information; the reality is they are used for branding to ensure profit.
Search results on produce stickers clogging water pipes revealed a consistent warning of ‘Things that should not go down your drain.’ Numerous sites from plumbing businesses to home improvement gurus caution homeowners of the hazards produce stickers can wreak on one’s home plumbing. Produce stickers ranked up there with fibrous vegetables, bones, grease, coffee grounds, and pastas as items never to put down the drain in your kitchen sink. The problem is the stickers will adhere to the inside of pipe walls catching other debris and/or stick to the blades of your garbage disposal preventing the blades from properly grinding food waste.
Municipal wastewater treatment plants:
The potential for plumbing problems doesn’t end in your home. The labels are clogging up sewer pipes and sticking to the walls of settling tanks in sewage treatment plants. The stickers have gummed up recycled-water irrigation sprinklers at local parks. Part of the problem (depending on the screening of the filtration system) is the produce stickers have the same buoyancy as water so they float thru filters, then into pipes before gumming up irrigation sprinkler heads. This can be costly to municipalities requiring filter upgrades and/or extra labor as filters have to be manually vacuumed several times a day to remove the muck.
And there’s the whole can of worms regarding downstream issues. Plastics of any kind are bad for our environment and should not be in our wastewater as they do not decompose. Keep in mind 29 billion pounds of fresh produce is sold annually by farmer’s using plastic stickers and you’ll get a better picture as to why something so small can create BIG problems for wastewater treatment facilities.
Environmental contaminant and health implications
But the havoc doesn’t stop with issues in plumbing and treatment plant filtration systems. There are environmental costs to our planet and our well-being.
The stickers are not biodegradable since they are made from plastic or vinyl. BioCycle rated the labels as one of the ‘Big Three’ physical contaminants in collected organics that is polluting commercial composting facilities. And as diligent as I try to be in my composting, I’m part of the chorus of gardeners surprised by how many sneak by me. Furthermore, composters that accept pre-consumer food waste may not do so because of the labor required in removing the plastic labels. So the waste ends up in our landfills where it contributes to emissions of methane gas in our atmosphere rather than becoming a soil amendment that assists in sequestering carbon.
And the culprits are so ubiquitous they are finding their way into our bays and oceans. For example in 2009 the East Bay Municipal District notified its customers that produce labels were getting into the San Francisco Bay advising the public how to responsibly dispose of them – that is, in your garbage can.
There are several alternatives to plastic produce stickers; some have been around for decades. These include but are not limited to laser printing, vegetable-based ink printing and compostable stickers. All methods have demonstrated various degrees of success as well as limitations. For example, laser printing works well on produce with tough skin but not as effectively on produce with delicate skin. Vegetable-based ink printing can wash off if produce becomes too wet. I do not view these drawbacks as negatives. Rather I think of them as opening the playing field for a variety of technologies that will hopefully facilitate the age old dilemma companies face in upgrading infrastructure and machinery for large-scale production. But I’m not naive, the costs to companies will be met with great resistance. And until supply and demand reaches that sweet spot, costs for some of the mentioned alternatives will be another deterring factor.
Yet increasingly calls to ban this unnecessary single-use pollutant are getting louder and being heard around the world. France became the first country to ban them and to mandate all produce labels be compostable. A Swedish supermarket teamed up with a Dutch company to sell laser branded produce. Of note- laser printing eliminates the need for paper, plastic, adhesives and ink! And in the United States, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act includes a ban on the use of plastic produce stickers.
Action you can take
Sign the petition- https://change.org/banproducelabels
Shop at your local farmer’s marketplace.
Grow your own produce.
Send letters to the grocery store chains you shop at.
Remove the produce labels and put them in the garbage can.
Tell your family and friends. You may be surprised how many people in your circle are unaware.
Some would argue there are bigger fish to fry, so why should we bother! I request those of that mindset to imagine you are the captain on a sinking ship with multiple holes of varying sizes with a full crew at your disposal. Would you not call for all hands on deck to plug the big holes as well as all those pesky small ones?