Scouring a newly purchased piece of produce to find and peel off its small, sticky label is such a banal activity that we barely give it any thought, apart from mild irritation. But with a new pilot program, the Swedish grocery chain ICA and the Dutch fruit and vegetable supplier Nature & More are suggesting that maybe we should.
The two companies have teamed up on an initiative to replace the pesky stickers with laser-printed labels on organic avocados and sweet potatoes. A strong beam reduces pigmentation on the skin of the produce, leaving a mark with the name, country of origin, and PLU code that disappears once the peel is removed. Laser printing has no effect on the product’s edibility or shelf life. Though the pilot program is set to run until the end of March, Peter Hagg, the produce unit manager for ICA, told Co.Exist in an email that the feedback so far has been positive enough that the two companies anticipate extending the trial into the summer.
The idea of laser-printed produce really took off in 2013, when the Spanish-based company Laser Food (which is supplying the technology to ICA and Nature & More) partnered with researchers at the University of Valencia to develop a tool that could reliably and legibly mark fruits and vegetables without affecting their quality. While this technology can be used to aesthetic ends–Laser Food has previously emblazoned melons with Christmas trees for a bit of festive flair–the real utility in the development lies in its efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Michaël Wilde, the sustainability and communications manager for Nature & More, told The Guardian that through the pilot program, ICA and Nature & More intend to show how laser printing can cut back on the need for wasteful packaging, and ensure the reliable traceability of produce across all stages of the supply chain. Organic produce, especially, is often sold loose to cut back on the need for excess paper or plastic packaging. But all loose fruits and vegetables, under EU law, must be individually labeled. Even though the stickers are tiny, they’re so ubiquitous that they add up to a not-insubstantial amount of waste. Take avocados: Hagg said that switching from stickers to laser marks for that item alone could save 135 miles of plastic, if you laid all the stickers end to end.
Laser printing will not be a panacea for all produce labels: during a trial last summer, the U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer experimented with the same technology on oranges, but according to The Guardian, the citrus’ self-healing skin re-grew over the laser impression, rendering it less effective than originally hoped. But Hagg says successes will likely prevail over such setbacks. Hagg and the team at Nature & More plan to roll out a test on melons in the second phase of the trial; on melons, a layer of metallic material is often added to the back of the sticker to keep it from falling off, making it even more wasteful. “These stickers,” Hagg says, “we would really like to get rid of.”
Though laser machines are not inexpensive, Hagg believes the environmental and financial benefits will, in the long-run, outweigh the initial costs. For now, ICA and Nature & More will focus on gauging customers’ reactions, and getting the word out to other stores about the work that they’re doing. “I hope that our trial at least can encourage more retailers and producers to innovate on more eco-friendly ways of handling our produce,” Hagg said.