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Are Produce Stickers Biodegradable?

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Are the UPC stickers you find on fruit and vegetables biodegradable? Unfortunately the answer is: usually not. Produce stickers are often made from plastic, meaning:

  • They are not biodegradable
  • They are not compostable
  • They are not edible

Plastic produce stickers may seem inconsequential compared to other environmental issues (even if they are annoying!) but they can actually create a lot of problems for composters. When accidentally overlooked, they can get into the compost bin and contaminate compost!

Compostable produce stickers, on the other hand, are designed to go straight into the compost bin with fruit and vegetable scraps!

Produce Stickers on Grocery Store Fruit

What are Produce Stickers for?

PLU stickers are useful to grocery stores and retailers because the code stores information about the fruit or vegetable that they are placed on.

The first person to use produce stickers on a large scale was Tom Mathison, founder of Stemilt Growers. Seeing them as a potential marketing strategy, he included the name of his farm and later added a logo to show that his produce was organic.

PLU codes were added in the 1990’s. These 4-digit codes (sometimes 5-digit for organic produce) make identification easier - They store important information about the produce such as price, type, and origin. They can also sometimes have interesting or creative designs!

These stickers can also help to prevent food waste at large grocery chains, as the PLU codes can be used to track inventory more accurately. Unfortunately produce stickers are often not made from eco-friendly materials - meaning that while they can help reduce waste in some areas, they also introduce waste of their own.

Eco-Friendly Fruit Stickers

What are Produce Stickers Made From?

Fruit and vegetable stickers are usually made from plastic. They need to be water resistant to stand up to the storage and selling conditions of fresh produce. They also need to be flexible enough to adhere to round or uneven surfaces.

There are plenty of rumors flying around, but because they are made from plastic, fruit stickers aren't edible. Accidentally eating one now or then probably won't hurt you, but just because something can technically be eaten doesn’t mean it is edible!

Are Produce Stickers Biodegradable?

Food Scraps

The most common type of produce sticker is made from petroleum-based plastic, and therefore not biodegradable.

Despite good intentions, many of these tiny stickers mistakenly end up at composting facilities. Because they’re so small they are easy to miss when you’re putting fruit or vegetable scraps in your compost bin. They make their way to the composting facility where removing them is difficult, expensive, and time consuming. These tiny stickers also frequently show up in home or community compost bins!

Some might argue that produce stickers are so small that removing them from compost is mostly a cosmetic issue. When reducing plastic waste we shouldn’t only consider the size of the individual item. While one sticker may be small, in 2019 the U.S. consumed 153.32 lbs of  fresh vegetables and 115.8 lbs of fresh fruit per capita. A huge proportion of those fruits and vegetables will have stickers!

Not to mention that their small size is a big part of the problem! They’re easy to miss, difficult to pick out by hand, and at industrial composting facilities they can slip past the compost screening equipment!

If we are to combat climate change by increasing composting, we also need to address compost contamination. By dismissing plastic stickers as inconsequential, we risk inadvertently contaminating compost and putting more plastic into the environment.

Compostable Produce Stickers - PURE Labels

Eco-Friendly Produce Stickers

So, what should you do with produce stickers?

We can make sure that we remove plastic stickers before putting fruit and vegetable scraps into the compost, but PLU stickers do not need to be made from plastic! There are several different ideas for eco-friendly stickers that are commonly discussed among sustainable producers:

  • Compostable
    Produce stickers made from bioplastics can stand up to the same conditions as petroleum-based plastic stickers! We’re probably a little biased, but we think this is the best option! The sticker matches the intended end-of-life solution for the fruit peel or veggie scraps, and they can be safely put in the compost bin together.
  • Laser Etching
    The PLU codes are directly etched onto the skin or rind of the produce! This is a great option for fruit and vegetables with thick peel! Unfortunately purchasing the equipment needed can be cost prohibitive for smaller producers.
  • Paper
    While paper stickers may seem like a good solution, uncoated paper will not stand up to the moisture in fruit production and storage. Coating the paper usually involves using plastic, and then we are right back where we started! Paper stickers are also often not flexible enough to stick to uneven or very round fruits.
  • Recyclable
    Recyclable stickers are great for many applications, however recyclable fruit stickers would still need to be removed from the fruit before being disposed of. Recyclable stickers are not necessarily compostable and may still contaminate compost.

To make waste reduction more efficient it’s important to make sure that things often disposed of together are designed to go into the same waste stream.

Compostable Produce Stickers

Compostable produce stickers do exist! By using compostable stickers, the produce sticker can be composted right along with your fruit or vegetable scraps, you don’t even need to peel them off first.

What’s the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable?

PURE Labels compostable stickers are both biodegradable and compostable. Our bioplastic material options are flexible as well as water, grease, and oil resistant - making them perfect for use as produce stickers. Performance is almost exactly the same as their plastic counterparts - but they also break down at end-of-life as part of a healthy compost pile. Every component of the label is compostable, including the ink and adhesive.

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The efficiency of composting facilities plays a crucial role in developing the circular economy. As we continue to move towards a more sustainable future, it’s important that we are aware of the consequences of plastic use. Even small parts, such as plastic stickers, have the potential to cause big problems for the environment.

Widespread use of compostable labels and stickers can significantly reduce compost contamination - bringing us closer to our goal of ending landfills!