in partnership
If you took all the plastic labels stamped on oranges, bananas and avocados alone, you could wrap them around the world 1.6 times, a kilometer wide. (Image: Getty Images)

Local students have an eco-friendly alternative to plastic stickers on your fruits/veggies

Have you ever taken a bite of an apple and noticed you bit down on something chewy that wasn't part of the fruit? You probably bit into the label - we've all done it.

Produce labels are stamped on each piece of fruit, either by the farmer or a distributor for use in the grocer's inventory. However, not only are those labels sticky, chewy and tasteless - they're also environmentally unsafe. If you took all the plastic labels stamped on oranges, bananas and avocados alone, you could wrap them around the world 1.6 times, a kilometer wide.

Nature's Label, a start-up created by five enterprising college students from the University of Washington and Seattle University, has taken up the challenge to invent compostable labels with a compostable adhesive that will not only be good for the environment but be durable enough to match the shelf-life of the fruit.

Arya Mathew, Khoi Ha, Sophie Ye, Alyssa Mell and Siddhant Jain met at East Lake High School in Sammamish and are excited to work together. The project started as a submission into the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge at the beginning of 2019.

"Our professor came into class and talked about the challenge," said Ye, a University of Washington student with a double major in applied computational mathematical science and finance. "But we weren't sure what exactly to do. As we started brainstorming, one of our friends was eating an apple, and she ate the sticker. We thought it may be toxic, so we Googled it and found that the label wouldn't hurt her, but it was bad for the environment. So, we took the idea of a biodegradable label to a 60-second competition at UW to test it. After that, we started to build a prototype."

"The way it is now, the base layer of the label is made of a petroleum or vinyl product," said Ha, another UW student who is working on chemistry and applied mathematics degrees. "So we came up with the concept of taking the existing model for the PLU stickers but swapping out the materials to make them more compostable. That way, we didn't have to reinvent the printing devices."

The group of friends applied to both the Alaska Airlines competition and Seattle University's Harriet Stephenson Business Plan Competition for which they took first place. They are now working on the prototype. While they plan on using paper with a wax overlay for the label, their biggest challenge is coming up with a natural adhesive that is not only compostable but also durable enough to last six months to a year.

"Those are two opposing factors," said Ha. "We are trying to find something that is natural yet durable. We've tried pine tree sap, another idea to try is honey. But we're open to other ideas and want to test them all. We're still in the research and development phase."

"Our short-term goal is to communicate with local farmers who can give us feedback," said Jain, who studies human-centered design and engineering at UW.

"We want to reach out and get more feedback from the consumer," said Mathew, a Seattle University student majoring in computer science. "Then partner up with producers to get more recognition and help."

In the meantime, the students are still in college - with all that entails. But this project is good hands-on experience.

"My interest is how we can take common objects and make them easier for humans," Jain explained. "I like this idea because getting those stickers off when you want to eat a piece of fruit is a huge pain, so the experience of eating the food is diminished. By using my skills in an untraditional way, I can help make eating food easier."

"I have a passion for R&D, so this project helps me build the skills I need," said Ha.

Mall, also an applied computational mathematical science major at UW, said, "I love projects that involve innovation and creative thinking."

Mathew put it simply — "At first, it was a fun project, but now it's become more than that. I'm just excited to work with my friends."