In the comments on my post about toxic food packaging labels, the subject of fruit and vegetable labels came up, those little plastic stickers affixed to almost all grocery store produce these days so cashiers don’t have to memorize the codes.
Back in the day when I was a kid, produce didn’t come with stickers. There were codes ink-stamped on some of the citrus, as I recall, but nothing like the plastic stickers we have today that are especially annoying when attached to soft-skinned fruit like ripe pears and peaches. Don’t you hate when the skin rips off with the sticker?
But what about the adhesive and the tiny bit of plastic the sticker represents? Is it something that should keep us awake at night? My feeling is that no, it should not, and before you crucify me, please let me explain why.
Stickers Differentiate Organic from Non-organic
Devised by the International Federation for Produce Standards, the PLU (Price Look-Up) codes on produce labels help us and grocery store employees differentiate between organic food and non. Four number codes indicate non-organic. Five number codes beginning with 9 indicate organic food. Codes beginning with 8 are supposed to indicate that produce is genetically-modified, but according to Charles Margulis from the Center for Environmental Health, apparently those GMO produce sticker codes are unreliable. Some companies use them and some don’t. So just because a piece of fruit is not labeled with an 8 doesn’t mean it’s not GMO.
Now think about all the chemicals used to grow non-organic foods. And think about the possibility of organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables getting confused by employees at the grocery store. I’d rather have a plastic sticker letting me, and them, know the difference than subject myself to residue from all the petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers used to grow conventional produce. Wouldn’t you?
Stickers Differentiate Local vs. Non
Those stickers also indicate the country and often the state of origin. If you’re concerned about reducing your food miles, it’s nice to know where your produce came from. Do you think a Safeway employee would be able to give you that information without a sticker on the fruit?
What to Do With Produce Stickers
So, you’ve eaten the fruit and still have the plastic sticker hanging around. What do you do with it? Well, certainly don’t put it in your compost bin with the peels, pits, and cores. A Fake Plastic Fish reader commented a while back about tossing all her fruit peels onto the compost pile, stickers and all, and ending up at the end of a season with a big pile of stickers. Throw them in the trash. Or get creative.
Collect them: Apparently, there is a whole community of people dedicated to collecting fruit labels the way people collect stamps. World of Fruit Labels bills itself as “The web’s first and oldest fruit label site. Founded as long ago as May 1999.” The site contains images of and information about over 1,000 different labels.
Make art: Barry Snyder of Stickerman Produce Art collects and makes amazing collage art from produce stickers. From a fruit sticker version of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can to to a beautiful pair of cowboy boots, Barry’s collages depict pretty much anything he thinks of. This one is probably my favorite, but that’s because I’m weird.
You can send your used fruit stickers to Barry at:
Barry “Wildman” Snyder
Erie, CO 80516
Avoiding Plastic Produce Stickers
All that said, I avoid plastic produce stickers. Why? For one, because the goal of my project on Fake Plastic Fish is to see how little plastic waste I can generate, and fruit stickers count as plastic waste. But the biggest reason is because I can!
Farmers Markets: I live in an area with year-round farmers markets, so I never have to buy produce from the grocery store. And none of the fruits and vegetables at the farmers market come with stickers. The vendors know their own produce. They don’t have to memorize hundreds of codes.
CSA’s: another source of stickerless produce is your local CSA, if you have one. Generally that food will be sticker-free as well.
Grow Your Own: If you need to put a sticker on produce you grow in your backyard, I would like to meet you because you are weirder than I am.
Picking Our Battles
We can pick our fruits and noses and battles. Compared to all the other sources of plastic pollution, fruit stickers are the least of our worries. Plus, they are actually useful. On a personal level, look at the areas of your life that still need de-plasticking work. Do you still end up with plastic grocery bags sometimes? Are you menaced by take-out food containers? Do your kids bring home cheap plastic Happy Meal crap? Yes? Then those are the areas I would focus on: remembering our travel mugs and water bottles and reusable bags; refusing plastic packaging as much as possible.
And if fruit stickers are the one last hold out in your quest to get disposable plastic out of your life, maybe it’s time for bigger action. How about getting involved in a campaign to ban or tax disposable bags in your city or state? What about writing to stores that you frequent and asking for more plastic-free options? How about organizing community swap meets so you can reduce the need to buy new durable plastic products? The sky is the limit.
I’m not saying that I think it’s just fine and dandy to have plastic and adhesive stuck to our fruits. I’m just saying I think we have bigger issues to worry about.