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As Canada considers ban on plastic produce labels, this company makes paper and compostable ones

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With his four-year-old son in mind at the time, Joe Sleiman says he knew more than 20 years ago he didn’t want to manufacture plastic produce labels.

The president of Accu-Label in Lakeshore, Ont., began designing paper stickers in the late 1990s, with the company opening in 2001.

“I spent a couple of years researching, and I came back and I said to the guys locally in the Leamington area, ‘We’ve got to go paper. My son is four years old. I do not want him biting into a piece of fruit and accidentally eating plastic. It’s just not going to happen.'”

Now, the business on the outskirts of Windsor in southwestern Ontario prints billions of labels each year, and has nearly 400 customers across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

Joe Sleiman, president of Accu-Label in Lakeshore, Ont., stands in front of signage and a machine at the label manufacturer.
Joe Sleiman, president of Accu-Label, stands in front of signage and a machine at the label manufacturer. The company opened in 2001 and has nearly 400 customers across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. (Michael Evans/CBC)

In a published regulatory paper, which is currently open for public comment until Thursday, the federal government is proposing new rules that include all Price Look-Up (PLU) produce stickers be required to be compostable — prohibiting non-compostable plastic produce stickers. Drafted regulations are expected to be published by the end of 2023.

How PLU stickers impact environment

Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an emailed statement to CBC News that while PLU produce stickers may appear “small and insignificant,” collectively they can amount to a large number of contaminants. 

“Sorting of the stickers at organics processing facilities is time, labour and cost intensive — and may result in the diversion of food waste contaminated with PLU stickers to landfills where it will generate methane emissions,” the statement said. 

“Moreover, the presence of plastic in finished compost, when applied to land, has the potential to contribute to microplastics in the environment.”

No matter the location, Neil Scott says the first thing he does when he’s out grocery shopping is check to find his company’s labels.

Scott is a printer at Accu-Label and has worked there for 18 years.

“Whether it’s somewhere local or somewhere a bit further afield, you always see our label.”

Neil Scott is a printer at Accu-Label in Lakeshore, Ont., and has worked for the manufacturer for 18 years.
Neil Scott, a printer at Accu-Label, has worked for the manufacturer for 18 years. (Michael Evans/CBC)

According to Scott, working on paper provides better imagining and print quality.

He also said it’s “better for the environment.”

“They [sticker labels] will always be needed because produce is a big chunk of the consumer, you know, that goes into the grocery stores. Everybody buys fruit and vegetables. So they’ll always be needed to determine the PLU, the customer’s logo, and so on and so forth.”

Computerized machines in operation at Accu-Label in Lakeshore, Ont.
Computerized machines in operation at Accu-Label. (Michael Evans/CBC)

Sleiman said the easiest way to tell if a label is plastic, and not paper or compostable material, is that plastic ones are more difficult to rip.

For roughly the past two years, Sleiman said, Accu-Label has also been developing fully compostable labels, which were recently approved by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA).

“Our current paper label substrate passes. Their compostable testing decomposes virtually unnoticed within the timeframe they want.”

Sleiman said compostable labels are more expensive to make and some don’t stick to certain produce.

“The big challenge is getting adhesive that’ll stick to the kiwifruit and the peaches. We do have compostable labels currently to offer that will stick to apples or tomatoes.

“But at this point, we’re saying our paper label at no extra charge already meets compostable regulations to get fully certified and make the little tweaks for the full certification.”

A sheet of Pure Flavor produce sticker labels is shown at Accu-Label in Lakeshore, Ont.
A sheet of Pure Flavor produce sticker labels is shown at Accu-Label. (Michael Evans/CBC)

After using plastic sticker labels since opening, in the last six months, Pure Flavor Foods out of Leamington has begun transitioning to paper labels.

Reason for move away from plastic

Senior vice-president Joe Sbrocchi said the move away from plastic was made with an eye on “sustainability of the greenhouse sector.”

“There’s not many places that feed CO2 to their plants like we do,” said Sbrocchi, former executive director and general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers board (OGVG). 

“Our science team at OGVG made it known to all of our membership that this was an opportunity. But we also asked them to look at all aspects of their business.

“I think what’s happening is very slowly, many, many of the greenhouse marketers are determining that it’s a good thing.”

Pure Flavor grows mainly tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers — and more recently, eggplant, berries and lettuce. 

Sbrocchi said their customers — the people cutting purchase orders — are “pleased” with the look and durability of the non-plastic labels, and he’s unsure if consumers have even realized the difference yet.

“It makes more sense to just be able to throw their organic waste away and not worry about what little bit of contamination might be there, because it’s very little. But on the massive numbers in total, it actually totals up to a huge number.” 

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