Guest commentary: Tiny food labels add up to big problem
January 23, 2018
The problem showed up first in my chicken coop. With all the neighbors donating food wastes to my chickens, the little plastic labels on the inedible fruit rinds began accumulating. As more of this inedible material worked through my compost piles, my vegetable garden also became speckled with the little plastic labels, many boasting "Certified Organic."
Having expanded what was then my commercial compost operation, Cacaloco Compost, to include more food wastes, my compost — my livelihood — also began to look trashy with tiny plastic spots. These labels are just too small to screen out of finished compost. It was time to take action.
Starting with what I assume to be our nation's largest provider of organic produce, thinking that such a progressive, organic grocery would want to champion the noble cause of eliminating this unnecessary source of plastic pollution, I could find no one willing to acknowledge these labels to be a problem. I had the same result with other grocery chains. It's another good reason to support farmers markets, but they're not always an option.
Everyone knows that micro-plastics have become a huge problem in every ecosystem in the world. What could possibly be more prone to enter the food chain than little bite-sized morsels of plastic that, due to the absorptive and off gassing properties of plastic, continue to smell like food for extended periods of time? What happens to the labels my chickens eat? Their gizzards grind it very finely. Does it end up in their meat? Their eggs? In my vegetables fertilized with their wastes? Or just in my beautiful soil?
I don't know the science, but I assume that most folks would rather not have this plastic garbage anywhere near any of our foods. Even if it were just a matter of aesthetics, that's still reason enough to deal with it. So why do we allow anyone to plaster every piece of produce we purchase with plastic pollutants?
These little plastic labels are small enough that no one seems to recognize them as litter. It's as bad as the old days when people felt free to flip cigarette butts and pop tops onto the ground, except that nowadays this plastic is being littered by even the most conscientious, environmentally oriented crowds. As a part-time employee picking up curb-side organic wastes for the wonderful folks with Evergreen Zero Waste, a local social enterprise, I can attest that these labels are the most common contaminant in food wastes. A single shovelful of any food waste compost will include several of these labels.
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As a seasonal horseback guide (mules in my case), hunting guide, and one who also spends most of my free time in the woods, I find these little plastic stickers everywhere, from the tops of our highest peaks to our desert canyons, and on the most remote wilderness trails. Sure, this might not be the biggest environmental crisis on Earth, but it's probably the simplest one to remedy.
Rather than trying to train the whole world to recognize these labels as litter, why not just eliminate this problem at the source? Whatever happened to the purple vegetable dye "Sunkist" stamps on orange peels? At least Chiquita Bananas use paper stickers instead of plastic. Don't they now make sixpack holders that are safely edible for sea turtles and such? There must be some fairly simple solutions to this big problem of little litter.
Jim Duke lives in Carbondale.