May 19, 2021
Unlocking the benefits of compostable produce stickers for broader circular economy efforts.
*This blog is the third and final post in the produce sticker series. You can read the first piece: Produce Stickers: A Small but Mighty Problem, here, and the second: Produce Stickers: Are they the Next Straw, here.
How might something as small as a produce sticker help divert more food scraps and prevent methane in landfills? One solution involves compostability. In part 2 of this produce sticker series, we explored compostable produce stickers as one possible alternative to traditional plastic produce stickers. While there are just a handful of compostable sticker options currently available on the market, more investment and brand commitment could make compostable produce stickers a promising tool to compost more food, improve compost quality, and eliminate this common non-recyclable plastic.
What are the benefits of transitioning to compostable produce stickers?
Addressing a big problem at composting facilities.
By some measures, produce stickers are part of the “big three” of contaminants at composting facilities. In the Washington report on contamination, facilities identified non-compostable produce stickers as one of the top five most persistent contaminants in their facilities, i.e., items that resist identification and/or removal, showing up in finished compost. Composters spend a significant amount of time educating their customers about the need to remove plastic produce stickers, as well as dealing with the stickers when they inevitably come into their facility.
According to European Environment Agency briefing documents, replacing conventional plastics with certified compostable plastics for items that are often mixed with, or attached to, food waste can help reduce contamination with conventional plastics, and produce stickers is a key place to start.
Enabling more composting, which in turn reduces methane emissions.
Because of the contamination problems outlined above, compostable produce stickers would make it easier for composters to accept food waste from pre-consumer and post-consumer sources. Composting has numerous benefits for the environment, including helping to divert food waste out of landfills, where they generate methane emissions and instead create a soil amendment that helps sequester carbon. Today’s composting is hampered by contamination issues, and proactively addressing them would enable more material to be processed at composting facilities.
Serving as an “olive branch” to composters.
Some composters feel that they are being forced to accept compostable packaging, such as compostable food serviceware and bin liners while receiving little support to deal with contamination or increased processing costs. By addressing one of composters’ biggest contaminants, the compostable packaging and produce industries would be supporting the profitability and viability of the composting industry. This would help create a more positive relationship between groups, demonstrating care for the quality of finished compost, and serve as an example for other compostable products.
Given these compelling benefits for composters, consumers, and society’s circular economy goals, it’s worth trying to understand why compostable produce stickers haven’t yet reached scale. Research on this question is limited, but a number of factors appear to be at play. These barriers to adoption include:
Limited number of solutions providers.
A key barrier to scalability is that there are a limited number of solutions providers. In 2017, a Washington State Organics Contamination Reduction Workgroup report determined that “although there are compostable stickers available, the market has not yet reached sufficient scale to provide a viable alternative to conventional stickers.” Since that time, the landscape of manufacturers has not changed substantially, although more retailers have trialed solutions. Presumably, this means that today’s compostable produce stickers are also cost-prohibitive. As more solutions come on the market and are adopted more widely, they become more cost-effective to manufacture.
Cost and logistical challenges to adoption for retailers and packers.
In one survey of 63 fruit processors, sticker manufacturers, and other stakeholders, respondents felt switching to more sustainable alternatives to produce stickers would be made more challenging by infrastructure, machinery, and product efficiency, and large-scale application. For example, the sticker applicator and substrate are often sold together, so switching to an alternative product may require costly changes to equipment. Compostable stickers themselves are also likely to be more expensive – according to a source at Sinclair, the price of the Sinclair EcoLabel is about two times that of standard labels manufactured by the company. While this is in part due to today’s low demand and production, it is likely that price parity will not be achieved until adoption is much more widespread.
Misaligned incentives and limited demand.
The cost-savings associated with compostable produce stickers are expected to be seen primarily by composters, rather than the growers and retailers who implement these solutions. Although compostable produce stickers may be in line with these companies’ sustainable packaging goals to use less non-recyclable plastic, produce stickers are not yet widely recognized as an unnecessary single-use plastic. This creates a misalignment of incentives, whereby growers and retailers are the ones paying more for compostable produce stickers in the short-term and receiving more intangible benefits in the long-term. In the same survey of processors and manufacturers, “lack of demand” was named as a barrier to alternative produce stickers.
These barriers have prevented compostable produce stickers from gaining widespread adoption, but change is on the horizon. Bans on plastic produce stickers are set to go into effect, consumers are likely to grow increasingly frustrated, and composters may become stricter about not accepting stickered food waste.
The time has come for retailers, packers, and the produce value chain to turn to alternative solutions. By setting goals to phase out plastic produce stickers, the produce value chain can signal it’s ready to explore new innovations that benefit consumers and help keep more food waste out of landfills.
If you’d like to join the conversation about produce stickers, reach out to Olga Kachook, Senior Manager, email@example.com