Swedish supermarket replaces produce stickers with laser branding

The 'natural branding' process marks the outermost layer of peel without using ink or affecting taste and shelf life.

Plastic produce stickers might be a thing of the past if Swedish supermarket ICA has its way. The chain, with more than 1,300 stores across Sweden, began experimenting last December with ‘natural branding,’ a process that imprints a fruit or vegetable peel with its name, country of origin, and code number using a laser. The low-energy, carbon dioxide laser burns away the first layer of pigment to a clearly legible result that uses no ink or additional products. It is a superficial, contact-free method that does not affect taste or shelf life.

This innovation is welcome news for shoppers familiar with the irritation of having to pick stickers off while washing produce prior to eating. Especially for those striving to reduce plastic waste, it’s highly annoying to have to pick off stickers in the produce aisle and placate grumpy cashiers who don’t like looking up produce codes.

While those plastic stickers may look tiny, they add up to a lot of waste from paper or plastic, glue, and ink. Waste reduction is something that ICA’s senior produce manager, Peter Hagg, wants to prioritize:

“[Natural branding] is a new technique, and we are searching for a smarter way of branding our products due to the fact that we think we have too much unnecessary plastic material or packaging material on our products… By using natural branding on all the organic avocados we would sell in one year we will save 200 km (135 miles) of plastic 30 cm (12 inches) wide. It’s small, but I think it adds up. ”

Natural branding will also save money. The upfront cost of a laser machine is high, but then it becomes more cost-effective than purchasing stickers. It’s also easier on the planet. The company behind the laser technology, Nature & More, says the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for a laser mark is “less than 0.2 percent of the amount for a sticker of similar size.”

ICA has begun branding organic avocados and sweet potatoes because their peels aren’t usually eaten and it’s hard to make stickers adhere to them. Organic produce is often packaged in plastic foil to differentiate them from cheaper conventional produce, which is sold loose. ICA’s switch alone will eliminate an estimated 725,000 packaging units throughout 2017, and this number could climb to millions as more products are added.

Marks & Spencer in the UK is already branding coconuts. Its trial experiments last year with oranges didn’t go well because orange peels have the ability to ‘heal’ themselves.

Hagg’s biggest concern lies with customers, who might find it strange to see a laser etching on their food, but he remains hopeful that it will catch on. He told The Guardian:

“If consumers react positively there is no limit. We are planning to try it with melons in summer, as there is a problem there at the moment with stickers attaching to the skin.”

Tags: Food Miles | Food Safety | Food Security | Fruits & Vegetables | Plastics | Waste

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