May 5, 2021

Produce Stickers: A Small but Mighty Problem

This is the first in a series of posts exploring plastic produce stickers and more sustainable alternatives



Plastic produce stickers are ubiquitous. Used on a variety of produce, the stickers are helpful at checkout because they carry important information: price look-up codes, or PLU codes. The International Federation for Produce Standards determines these PLU codes, which have been in use since 1990, with 1400+ codes assigned.

While most PLU stickers are about the size of a quarter, these little plastic stickers pose a huge issue for composters processing food waste. Known as contamination, they are a problem both for composters that accept pre-consumer food waste, such as from grocery stores, as well as post-consumer food waste, such as from residential composting programs. In the case of grocery store food waste, plastic produce stickers make it challenging to accept and process large quantities of off-spec or spoiled produce. This can result in truckloads of produce being turned away from composting facilities and instead sent to landfills, where it will generate methane emissions.

Produce stickers are also a very common contaminant in the residential food waste stream, since consumers may not remember to remove them from peels and skins. Many composters choose to continuously remind consumers to remove them, and to even incentivize this behavior through games and compost giveaways. Other composters, however, say that removing stickers is too burdensome for their consumers.

Because produce stickers are small, they cannot be removed with the equipment that is often used to remove other types of contaminants, such as Trommel screens or depackaging equipment. In some cases, composters dedicate staff resources to manually remove items with stickers. When plastic produce stickers end up in the finished compost, they are both a visual contaminant and a microplastic, making it difficult for composters to sell their product.

Various media outlets have been trying to raise awareness about the problem of plastic produce stickers for nearly a decade: Grist in 2013, the NY Times in 2015, Fast Company and The Guardian in 2017, Food and Wine, Modern Farmer, Stuff, and CBC in 2018, Fresh Plaza in 2019, Real Simple and CBC again in 2020, and most recently, Greenmatters and KMUW in 2021. Some of these outlets refer to the nuisance of having to remove these produce stickers, and consumer frustration can be seen across platforms. However, at this time, the negative consumer experience is not widely acknowledged by brands and retailers.

There have been some efforts made to ban conventional plastic produce stickers, as well as voluntary industry efforts to remove them. In 2017, a BC effort to ban produce stickers and replace them with compostable options, vegetable inks, or “food safe stamps”, was met with skepticism and ultimately did not succeed. Some of the general public felt the tiny stickers were not a big deal and the city should focus on other issues.

In 2019, Fresh Plaza reported that all of Britain’s major supermarkets, including Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Morrissons and Asda had signed on to the non-profit WRAP’s “Plastic Pledge”, which included a commitment to removing unnecessary plastics “including stickers on fruit and vegetables” by 2020. Information on this commitment, or retailer updates regarding progress on this 2020 goal, could not be found.

Legislation that attempts to address plastic produce stickers is on the horizon. France became the first country to ban produce stickers unless they are compostable. This law will go into effect on January 1, 2022. In the United States, a proposed ban on non-compostable produce stickers is included in the proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. In New Zealand, the Auckland City Council has also proposed a ban on non-compostable produce stickers.

In this blog series, we’ll consider whether produce stickers might be the “next straw” in the fight against single-use plastics, and explore the landscape of innovations serving as alternatives to plastic produce stickers.