A 10-year-old girl from Markham, Ont., is taking aim at one of the tiniest, most ubiquitous bits of plastic pollution — the stickers on fruits and vegetables. Maya Thiru is the face of a campaign lobbying for Canada to find another way to identify produce.
While the small, plastic labels attached to fruit and vegetables help cashiers at grocery checkouts, experts say the stickers end up in Canada’s compost and landfills, which can create plastic pollution and contaminate soil. Thiru said she wants Canada to find an alternative.
“No one benefits from soil contamination or greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we all suffer from it,” said Thiru, who is in Grade 5. “It’s not just animals that are getting harmed. It’s not just the soil that’s getting harmed. It’s not just our planet. It’s us, too.”
Thiru said she’s been an advocate for the environment since she was in kindergarten. Her interest in animals sparked her passion for defending the planet. When she was in Grade 2, she said she would stop strangers on the streets to speak about how fishing was putting vaquitas — a small, dolphin-like creature and the world’s rarest marine mammal — at risk of extinction. In school, she chose endangered snow leopards for a class presentation.
“I realized all their populations are decreasing,” Thiru said. “Then, I realized it was because of issues like climate change, deforestation and plastic pollution.”
Thiru sent emails out to Canadian environmental groups asking how she could help. In February, Beatrice Olivastri, chief executive officer of Friends of the Earth, told her to go to a grocery store to look at the produce labels.
“That day, I did not see fruit or veggies like I normally saw,” Thiru said. “I saw aisles and aisles of stickers instead. That’s when I realized there are so many of them.”
Now, Thiru is the face of Friends of the Earth’s campaign against the little stickers.
Plastic produce stickers are just a fraction of Canada’s plastic pollution. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadians throw away approximately 3.3 million tonnes of plastic each year. The plastics industry is responsible for a major part of Canada’s emissions — most plastic products are made from natural gas, oil or coal and less than 10 per cent of plastic products are recycled.
Kruti Mukesh — a data analyst who studied produce stickers as a master’s student of sustainable energy development at the University of Calgary — said there is not much data on how many plastic food labels end up in Canada’s landfills and compost. But after studying the life cycle of these stickers, she estimates about 1.5 billion stickers make their way through Canada’s supply chains each year.
“Every apple that you buy has stickers on it individually,” Mukesh said. “Every orange that you buy, every fresh produce that you buy, most of them have these stickers.”
For her research, Mukesh surveyed 63 Canadian produce distributors, processors and stakeholders. Eighty per cent reported they put stickers on produce. Mukesh said every single respondent that used produce stickers also reported those stickers were at least partly plastic.
“It’s not just about one sticker, but any kind of plastic used for packaging or wrapping food,” Mukesh said. “If we are not separating (food and plastic) while we are consuming them and disposing of the waste, it leads to a lot of environmental issues.”
Plastic packaging often ends up in compost bins, Mukesh said. While green bin waste does go through sorting facilities, she said stickers are so small that they can end up slipping through waste-sorting facilities and into compost. There, they can break down into microplastics and contaminate the soil.
Sometimes, plastic food packaging doesn’t break into microplastics before it makes it into the ground. Conor Murphy, a retired teacher in Vancouver, said last spring, he bought soil made of city compost for his garden. But after a heavy rainfall, he said he noticed little bits of plastic rising to the surface.
While Murphy did not identify any fruit stickers, Murphy said he started to notice small pieces of plastic food packaging — including elastic bands and pieces of produce bags — emerging through his garden’s topsoil.
“It was really off-putting and distressing,” Murphy said. “For probably a month, I would see the most unsightly pieces (of plastic) and I would pull it out of my yard.”
Last December, the Canadian government banned the manufacture and import of some single-use plastics — a move it estimated would cut out about 1.3 million tonnes of plastic waste. Thiru wants Canada to add plastic produce stickers to the ban.
Thiru, a member of Black Walnut Public School’s “eco-team” club, spoke in front of her peers about plastic pollution on produce. She asked her classmates to collect the stickers from produce on sheets of paper, which she plans to mail to Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault.
“We want to show them how many stickers there are and how big of an issue this is, and how many people want to ban plastic stickers,” Thiru said.
“If they were made out of paper and they entered our compost, that would be a little bit better,” Thiru said, “because they would go to our soil, but they would decompose.”
Mukesh said instead of plastic, Canada could adopt biodegradable produce labels or use edible ink or even lasers to etch labels on the outside of fruit and vegetables.
On March 6, Friends of the Earth posted videos of Thiru speaking about the stickers to its social media alongside a pledge asking for the labels to be banned. Thiru said she hopes to be able to speak at other schools in the Greater Toronto Area to convince other young students to join her campaign.
“We may be young,” Thiru said, “but our voices are loud because the future is ours.”
By Isaac Nay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 14, 2023