Fair Go: Why does the fruit we buy in shops still have stickers?

Source: Fair Go

The next time you do a shop at your local supermarket, pay closer attention to the fruit you buy, more specifically at the sticker labels on them.

Does anyone have any idea what the four-digit number on the sticker means? Do we care that our bananas come from Ecuador, or do we pay attention to the variety of our apples?

That is exactly the kind of information these sticky labels provide. But if consumers don't need this information, why do we still have fruit stickers on our fruit?

Fruit stickers have been around for decades, and they're usually made of plastic or polyethylene, which means they can't be recycled or home composted so they end up adding to our landfill problem.

Fair Go visited Te Matau-a-Māui, Hawke's Bay, a region known for producing some of Aotearoa's best fruit.

Yummy Fruit Co General Manager Paul Paynter thinks they're "pretty efficient, but not desirable".

Paul's whānau has been in the apple business for generations, and he says finding an alternative to these stickers is priority for the orchards in the region. But equally important is retaining the information that's on them.

"There's the variety obviously, which some people are interested in, because they don't know the difference, there's the brand, so you know where the apples come from," he said.

"There's the country of origin on the label as well and that's pretty important internationally too, because a lot of people love to put a sign up saying New Zealand apples, when they're not New Zealand apples."

Paul also says supermarkets make fruit stickers mandatory. In 2018, the Government passed a bill that made country of origin labelling on food, mandatory.

But here's the sticking point, the little piece of plastic needs to be able to break down when composted, but also strong enough to travel.

"We're shipping fruit a lot, to places like Europe," Paul says.

"It's 43 days on a boat, so it's often a couple of months before the product's in the consumer's hands."

Paul also says that the New Zealand brand has a reputation internationally, and making sure our fruit has the kiwi stamp holds a lot of value.

But what about our country's clean green brand?

Keen composter John Cole says he is forever picking out undigested stickers from his compost heap.

"They don't compost. They don't dissolve."

He's definitely tried. John has a worm farm, which provides compost for his garden. Everything he puts in it breaks down, except for those plastic stickers.

They reportedly do break down in a hotter, commercial compost, after about a week. But how many stickers would actually get there?

"Somehow these stickers are in minute sizes, but they're going somewhere," John says.

"I tried to work out how many fruit are on a tray, and then I multiplied the tray by the fruit and then I worked out and said OK well if you took all of that fruit and you put a sticker on each one, then how many would you have?"

John worked out that about 5.3 billion pieces of fruit are produced in Aotearoa every year, and if every piece of fruit is labelled, that's 5 billion stickers.

But there have been some efforts to come up with alternatives.

Fruit companies Zespri, Bostock and Yummy Fruit Co have all trialled industrial compostable stickers, and both Zespri and Bostock have made a permanent switch to them.

Zespri’s Chief Grower, Industry and Sustainability Officer, Carol Ward says they're continuing to work with providers to develop compostable fruit labels.

"We're trialling alternative technologies such as laser marking and paper labels, however the solutions for a 100 per cent home compostable food safe label are not available right now."

Our country's biggest fruit sticker producer Jenkins Freshpac Systems has signalled that change is coming. General manager Jamie Lunam says,"a home compostable sticker has been in development for some time.

"We have another round of trials starting shortly. We have a target of 2025 but we're very hopeful a solution will be found before then."

This change can't come any faster for waste warriors like John.

"If we can get a man on the moon, then surely the simplicity of the sticker on the fruit and trying to trace where it comes from, is solvable, other than putting a sticker on every piece of fruit," he says.

"There must be another way."