New incentive for peeling those pesky stickers off fruit

They’re annoying, those stickers on apples, oranges and most other produce. Peel one off, you’re apt to leave a hole in the skin of an otherwise perfect tomato.

They’re a pain. Small as they are, though, they’re packed with information.

If you know what to look for, according to the International Federation of Produce Standards, you can tell if an item is organic. The numbers are price look-up (PLU) codes. A “9” in front of a four-digit number means organically grown. So the code for an ordinary banana is 4011, but if it’s 94011 that’s how the global system labels an organic banana.

Where am I going with this? Now that I’m looking closely at those bothersome stickers, I may start saving them.

I once had a co-worker who stuck peeled-off stickers from lunchtime bananas onto the back of her desk chair. It made for quirky decor, but there’s a better motive for saving produce stickers.

Cedar Grove Composting, in cooperation with Waste Management and Everett’s Rubatino Refuse Removal, has an incentive program for sticker savers. The Seattle-based compost business has been criticized for raising a stink at its facility on Everett’s Smith Island. But this creative offer is likely to please garbage customers.

Cards have been sent out with some Waste Management and Rubatino bills. Fill a card with produce stickers, and a customer may turn it in to Cedar Grove for a free bag of the company’s compost, which is made from yard waste and food scraps.

The goal is to get people to peel off the stickers, most of which are plastic, before putting an orange or banana peel into a food-scrap recycling container. Otherwise, stickers will turn up in Cedar Grove compost and eventually in gardens.

Karen Dawson, Cedar Grove’s director of community relations, said the program began in 2014 as the Waste Management-Cedar Grove Produce Sticker Trading Card promotion.

A notice on the city of Federal Way’s website said the program had been so popular that availability of the cards is limited.

“We’re working with Rubatino, and a similar program is happening with them,” Dawson said Friday.

Cards are being mailed to 10,000 customers of the Everett garbage business, she said. Once filled, a card may be turned in for compost at the Smith Island site — “one free bag per person,” Dawson said.

A story about the sticker swap, with an Everett dateline, was published March 3 in The New York Times. Dawson said that Times writer Kim Severson was visiting Cedar Grove’s Everett site as part of a larger article.

At the end of the interview, Dawson said, “this lady came and turned in her card.”

The woman was Juanita Chase, of Lynnwood, who could not be reached for this column.

Chase told the Times that the card deal made her more careful about removing stickers before recycling food waste.

“Within a day of The New York Times story, our call center had 50 calls from people wanting the cards,” said Dawson. “At my last count, we had given away at least 1,000 bags of compost, the giant bags.”

For such tiny scraps, stickers create a big problem. They are too small to be screened out by Cedar Grove’s composting process.

“We don’t want to see anything that’s not green waste or food scraps,” Dawson said. “With recycling, whatever is being recycled is a commodity. You want to be able to sell it. With contaminants, that becomes more difficult.”

Dawson is amused that the sticker cards, intended in part as an educational tool for kids, have attracted so much attention, even from The New York Times.

“I think the program was targeted at children, but there’s a lot of interest with adults,” she said. “Clearly, it turned into something everyone can relate to.”

Julie Muhlstein: 4250339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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