Per Capita Davis: A small but sticky issue
It seems a little weird and awkward to write about small things influencing the climate crisis and sustainability when so many huge events are happening all at once.
Consider: the Amazon is aflame, scorching millions of carbon-absorbing trees to make more room to grow more meat; the permafrost is melting in the Arctic releasing vast stores of methane into the atmosphere; oil companies that proclaim commitment to being a part of the solution rather than the crux of the climate crisis problem are aggressively pursuing new fossil fuel sources in Alaska, in the deep ocean and anywhere else they can drill, baby drill; wildfires are raging across California as well on virtually every continent (Antarctica being the exception); weird weather is blowing, flooding, freezing, and blistering most of the planet; and the federal government is pursuing a vendetta against California and its leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But still, these are all big things we can more-or-less see, or read about or watch on TV. There are many, many more things that, if not unseen, are important but under the radar. The proliferation of plastics is one of them. We are drowning in plastic. Plastic is virtually impossible to avoid. If an item is not made of plastic, it most often comes wrapped in plastic. Take a quick tour around your living quarters; plastic is embedded in a larger proportion of items we use every day, such as the keyboard I’m typing on, the cord that connects it to my desktop computer, the mouse, etc.
Plastic is generally produced from fossil fuels, primarily natural gas but also oil. Natural gas is the feedstock for polyethylene that is the most common plastic on the planet and can be found in packaging, clothing, bottles and other consumer products, as well as polypropylene used in food packaging and vehicle manufacturing.
Which brings us to one of the smallest of the small uses of plastic: the little stickers on fruits and vegetables in use since 1990. These little guys contain a ”PLU” code (price look up) that was standardized worldwide in 2001 by the International Federation for Produce Standards to identify the fruit or vegetable you are buying. So, as stated in one description, “That’s right: the code for a honeycrisp apple is the same in any grocery store in any country.”
Since 2006, the sticker may also includes an omnidirectional barcode, an enormous convenience for everyone, making checkout at the grocery store a relatively quick process (unless you get in line behind a slowpoke) and inventory control easier. But imagine how many of these little stickers are used every day around the globe.
Couple that to fruits and vegetables having the highest rates of food waste, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Most goes to landfill, but a portion is being diverted to composting programs. The problem is the stickers, for the overwhelming most part, are not compostable and in countries like Canada where household composting is widespread this is a not-insignificant problem for composting facilities.
According to an article in Modern Farmer, “Produce stickers are a major problem for composting facilities. They don’t break down, and sorting them from the actually compostable product is time-consuming and expensive. Being extremely thin and pliable, the stickers pass through screens designed to catch them, and some composting companies single them out as the worst contaminant in their entire chain.”
As a bit of a sidebar, as in all things related to responding to problems of sustainability, there are numerous clever minds out there with novel ideas. One that doesn’t directly address the issue of plastics comes from a tech start-up named StixFresh. They claim to have tackled the food waste problem by inventing a substance, from all-natural ingredients, that, when added to the surface of a regular sticker in contact with the fruit can inhibit spoilage and extend the shelf life of fruits or vegetables by up to two weeks.
An innovation directly addressing the plastic issue proposes to essentially “brand” a fruit with a laser that applies the PLU to the skin of, for example, an avocado or sweet potato.
Most universally, though, the current recommended solution is to separate the sticker from the fruit or vegetable with the discarded fruit going into the compost and the plastic label going into the trash.
An article published this spring on the website Fooddive.com indicates the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, are funding efforts to attack this tiny problem so that no plastic is used at all.
Backing up for a second, the PLU codes can be of assistance to shoppers looking for organic produce. The numbers and letters in the code are guides to purchasing organic. If the PLU code has only four numbers, it means the product was “conventionally” grown with pesticides. For example, a non-organic banana is labeled 4011. If the PLU code has five numbers and the first one is an 8 this indicates genetic modification. So the banana would be 84011. If the PLU is five numbers and the first number is 9 the fruit is organic. An organically grown banana is coded 94011.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online on November 06, 2019 | Printed in the November 06, 2019 edition on page A5
Cool Davis is a coalition of citizens, the City of Davis, and community organizations working to empower our community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
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