Students from Winters Flat Primary School in Castlemaine, Victoria are hoping Australia will follow New Zealand’s lead in banning plastic fruit stickers.
The school’s Care for Environment Leaders have been campaigning for plastic produce labels to be banned or replaced by biodegradable or edible alternatives since finding “hundreds and hundreds” of them in their school kitchen garden compost.
Winters Flat teacher and garden specialist Terry Willis says the pesky fruit sticker campaign “was a tactile issue that students saw every day in their lunch box. And at the other end when they were sifting composting for garden classes”.
Students have been putting up handmade posters in local green grocers and writing to local, state and federal governments, supermarkets and fruit industry representatives. So far only a few have written back.
Care for Environment Leader and Grade 5 student, Aurora says “our school started working on a campaign against fruit stickers when I was in Grade 3 because we went through our school compost and found many fruit stickers in it.
“The stickers don’t break down for hundreds of years. It’s not only fruit stickers mixed in with our compost – they’re everywhere!”
Another student involved in the campaign, Indi, says “we are hoping that in the near or distant future fruit stickers will be banned altogether or biodegradable so they are better for the environment.”
In New Zealand, a ban on non-compostable fruit and vegetable stickers came into force on 1 July 2023. Under the new regulations non-compostable glue (sticking the label to the produce) will also be banned in 2025, with potential fines of up to $100,000 for non compliance.
In Australia, federal, state and territory environment ministers are working together to reform packaging regulation by 2025.
But apart from South Australia – set to ban fruit stickers from September 2025 (along with plastic soy sauce fish) – the majority of states and territories are avoiding the sticky issue of produce labels.
The vast majority of stickers are plastic, made from polyethylene. Though large in quantity, the stickers are small as a share of overall plastic waste.
A sticky, tricky problem
Their small size and cute, colourful designs belies the stickers’ troublesome nature in both home and commercial composting facilities.
Jennifer Macklin is a senior waste and circular economy researcher at Monash University’s Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
Macklin says, even though the stickers are tiny in tonnage terms, “they are problematic because they’re attached to food, which is more and more going into kerbside food and garden organic compost bins that are being rolled out in many states across Australia.”
Once composted, this organic material is intended to be used on land. As a result there are often strict limits in the amount of contamination allowable.
Tiny pieces of plastic can have a significant impact, it may cost more to sort and process the waste, or contaminated waste may simply be rejected and sent to landfill or used for less beneficial purposes. Councils are finding it’s not just fruit stickers causing contamination, but other plastics associated with fruit and vegetables, things like herb sleeves and plastic bands.
“Ideally, we want to be taking all those nutrients that are in the fruit and veg, turning them into compost, and putting them back into the land to close that cycle. And while we have contamination happening that’s less likely,” Macklin says.
Bio Gro is a family-owned company which processes and composts organic waste in South Australia and Victoria, turning it into a range of products for the agriculture, horticulture and landscape markets.
Sage Hahn, Group Operations Manager at Bio Gro, says the industry has high standards when it comes to contamination.
“We’re strict because we are trying to create a product – people touch it, people grow food with it.”
Plastic contamination in kerbside organic collection is a huge issue, says Hahn, and this includes fruit stickers. Glass can also be a problem.
“The contamination that we see come through is the biggest risk for the industry. By far,” she says.
Removing contamination has huge cost implications in terms of labour, land and equipment as well as landfill costs.
Would a ban on plastic fruit stickers make a difference? Hahn says, “every little bit helps”.
Macklin says New Zealand’s legislated, national scheme provides certainty, allowing everyone in the system to have confidence that the stickers will all be compostable past a certain point.
“Mandating is a really valuable tool,” she says.
But there remains a question about whether that’s possible at a national level in Australia given different states have different regulations.
In Australia, the problem with individual jurisdictions going it alone, or an individual producer or grower taking voluntary action is that consumers and processors still can’t be sure which stickers are traditional plastic and which are compostable.
Australian governments stick to the status quo
Food Standards Australia does not require fresh fruit and vegetables to be labelled. The stickers are part of a voluntary global system called the International Federation for Produce Standards which determines the 4 or 5 digit numbers printed on the stickers.
Following New Zealand’s new rules, Cosmos contacted Australia’s federal, state and territory environment and waste ministers to seek an update on their position on fruit stickers.
“State and territory governments lead on managing single use plastics phase outs and national harmonisation of those phase outs,” a spokesperson for the Federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water says.
A Western Australian government spokesperson says, “the Cook Government is committed to strong action to address plastic impacts.”
“At this stage there are no immediate plans to phase out produce labels, however we welcome feedback and will monitor the progress of jurisdictional partners.”
Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science spokesperson says, “while a ban on non-compostable fruit stickers has not yet been identified as a potential action, where alignment with proposals in other jurisdictions is appropriate the Queensland Government will consider similar actions.
“We are very serious about removing plastic waste from our environment and on 1 July 2022 released a five-year roadmap for proposed action on additional single-use plastic items, which indicates dates for potential bans on further single-use plastic products.”
A Victorian Government spokesperson says – sans specifics on the stickers – “actions to tackle plastic pollution are firmly on the Victorian Government’s agenda”.
Roger Jaensch, Tasmanian Minister for Environment and Climate Change says, “the Rockliff Liberal Government is working on a range of initiatives to improve waste management and resource recovery in Tasmania, including phasing out problematic single-use plastics.”
“The Tasmanian Government does not have plans to ban stickers on produce but will continue to work with other jurisdictions as the work to phase out problematic single-use plastics progresses.”
Other states and territories did not respond to our queries. However South Australia remains the only state with plans to ban fruit stickers and New South Wales will review its position on fruit stickers in 2024.
Even so, Winters Flat students aren’t giving up.
They’re about to embark on another round of letter writing as part of Plastic Free July, along with making posters and videos to share their message.
As Care for Environment Leader, Aurora says, campaigning for change, “is hard, and slow”.
Indi says, “if you are vocal and passionate about the issue, people will hear you”.