There they are again—in the compost heap, strewn on the backyard pile, stuck in the colander, peeping out of the garden beds—the eternal bane of many home gardeners: the small, ubiquitous, and remarkably indestructible vegetable sticker.
“I carefully remove every product label from every piece of fruit and vegetable that comes into our house,” says James Hohman, a professor at the University of Connecticut. But his compost heap lives on top of a compost heap used by the previous owners of his home. When Hohman’s family first moved in, he sifted through the pile and removed “probably hundreds of stickers.” But for years more and more stickers have been appearing – in piles and in garden beds.
Joshua Simpson, who lives in Washington, knows his pain. “I was composting blue jeans long before those stupid stickers were gone,” he says. His family also feeds their chickens their leftovers, resulting in stickers “all over the yard.”
“Every other scoop, I have to put the scoop down and pick out the stickers by hand,” says Gretchen Cheverton, who keeps finding stickers in her compost heap at home in Colorado. “No gardener could sleep at night leaving them in the finished compost and scattering them around the yard.”
Composting is about accelerating the breakdown of organic matter. Your kitchen scraps and lawn clippings will eventually rot. But a compost heap does it faster, and ideally with minimal odors — finished compost smells like forest soil — and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The same anaerobic bacteria that make rotting garbage smell so foul also release methane; Home composting focuses on promoting aerobic decomposition, which is both more sustainable and less nauseating.
Composting at home can be a fairly straightforward process, but the science behind it can turn this household chore into an optimization mini-game. On the r/composting subreddit, composters make a fuss about their nitrogen-to-carbon ratios and post pictures of the thermometers they’ve stuck in their piles. (A very hot stack is an achievement worth celebrating.)
For home composters, vegetable scraps and fruit peels are often a source of nitrogen, an essential part of a compost pile’s chemistry. Nitrogen feeds the microorganisms that break down the compost, generating heat in the process. Too little nitrogen and a heap stays cold and slowly decomposes. Too much and it starts smelling really bad. Maintaining the balance between nitrogen and carbon is key to home composting. (Other common sources of nitrogen are grass clippings, used coffee grounds, and—for the digested home composter—urine).
Unfortunately, the product stickers drive alongside the nutrient-rich kitchen scraps. They cling to a spent orange peel; they linger on a discarded banana peel; They’re brushed into the compost bin with a bunch of woody kale stalks and carrot tops. It takes extreme vigilance to prevent a product label from ending up in a compost heap.
It is worth noting the wide range of things that people successfully compost at home. While most backyard heaps won’t be able to decompose a “compostable” bioplastic fork (which will break down sustainably, but outside of a industrial composting), people have composted popsicle sticks, fingernail clippings, bones, t-shirts, blue jeans — heck, even a copy of Ron Pauls The Revolution: A Manifesto. (Hohman, who named the book downgrad[ing it] from the table leg rest”, indicating that he removed the cover first). The bones, the T-shirt or the book disappear and emerge as a nutrient-rich, dark brown hummus. But the product stickers remain.
Often made of plastic, Produce stickers will retain their shape and sometimes bright colors, although they often wash to a blinding white. When the compost is fully broken down, they stand out like a sore thumb—perfect little ovals, circles, and rectangles that stand out sharply against the dark brown soil of the finished compost.
“It seems like they could get away with just not putting stickers on the fruit and we’d be fine,” Simpson says. “But I’m just a fruit-eating guy … so maybe there’s something I don’t know.”
The Produce Marketing Association (PMA), which has since become the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), created the Price Look Up (PLU) system and the accompanying scourge of stickers from 1988 onwards. A PLU sticker has a number and sometimes a bar code. It exists to help a cashier correctly ring products at the checkout. The stickers themselves are made up of three components: glue, plastic or paper, and ink. The stickers must be food safe – but that’s not the same as compostable. Chewing gum, for example, is not compostable, an interesting fact that has finally made me stop swallowing my gum.
“Many of the individual components that make up a PLU label can be either recyclable or compostable,” he claims International Federation for Product Standards, a larger industry group that includes IFPA. But what good is it if the adhesive is compostable if it sticks to non-compostable plastic? The IFPS acknowledges that recyclers see the stickers as “contaminating the recycling process”.
After passing laws in Europe that ban different types of single-use plastics, IFPA, along with other industry groups and the USDA, is now exploring the development of PLU labels that can be composted at home. This step comes after many years criticism and proposed solutions, including a very imaginative idea for laser etched fruit. “Trying to make the combination of adhesive, substrate (plastic or paper), and ink so that it’s home compostable and durable enough to stick to products through the supply chain is no easy task,” Ed Treacy, Vice President of Supply Chain and Sustainability for IFPA, wrote in an email.
Both Cheverton and Hohman feel the decals are more of a nuisance than a real problem. “Probably the soil would be fine if we didn’t fish the stickers out of the compost,” says Cheverton. “But the solution is so simple that it’s frustrating that no grower/packer is willing to just switch to biodegradable paper stickers.”
“I could say it causes a little anxiety about the sheer amount of plastic permeating our world,” says Hohman. “It’s a symbol of the problem.” He called the stickers “a 10,000-year memorial to the time I bought some overripe kiwis and a tomato.”
The actual lifespan of the sticker is likely to be in the order of decades or possibly centuries, after which the sticker will likely eat away into microplastics that permeate the surface water and the Air and everything around us. But that’s hardly reassuring. Oceans rise, empires fall, and the product label remains—unbroken, undefeated, and utterly non-compostable.
https://www.theverge.com/23022355/produce-stickers-fruit-plastic-compost-biodegradable Fruit stickers are the scourge of the compost heap