Sticky nuisance or collector’s item?

Many find fruit labels a sticky nuisance but collectors exist worldwide. Now a new technology may stamp out the stickers and their hobby...

It started innocently enough.

Five years ago, before chomping into an apple or peeling a banana, members of the Slusarek family began detaching the little labels from the fruit and sticking them on their kitchen cabinets. But the practice didn’t end once the cupboards were covered with stickers. “It was getting out of hand,” said Wojciech Slusarek, 62, “but I just couldn’t throw them out.” Today, Slusarek, a retired chemist in Rochester, N.Y., has amassed nearly 4,000 produce stickers-now neatly arranged in notebooks.

“It’s a bit crazy,” said Slusarek, a native of Poland. “But it’s a fun hobby too.”

Though shoppers might find the little labels a sticky nuisance, hundreds of people worldwide collect them. More than 30 Web sites and several conferences worldwide are dedicated to collectors of P.L.U. (price look-up) labels. But a new technology that etches edible markers on produce may eventually stamp out the stickers.

Currently, about 1,200 produce items are registered with the P.L.U. system, and more than 75 billion labels a year are stuck to pieces of fruit and vegetables, according to the International Federation for Produce Standards. The stickers, which often display brand names, logos and catchy slogans, have a humble purpose: Numbers on them identify the type of produce for the cashier, which speeds up the trip to the checkout counter.

Conventionally grown produce has four numbers, organically grown has five digits beginning with a 9, and genetically modified fruit and vegetables have five digits beginning with an 8. For example, a conventionally grown banana may be marked 4011; an organic one, 94011; and a genetically modified one, 84011.

But it’s the tiny details of their design-packed quarry, not the identifying numbers, that interest collectors. Like postage stamps, the half-inch-diameter stickers often display bold, jewel-like colors; depict exotic locales; and convey cultural information. One of Slusarek’s favorite mango tags displays a tropical Mexican beach scene: deep blue waves crash against the golden sand, where a large indigo parrot balances on an orange-striped beach ball under palm trees.

To secure their bounty, collectors sometimes engage in some pretty peculiar behavior. Becky Martz, of Houston, has taken a label off the banana in a friend’s hospital room and plucked a sticker from a rotten peel on the street, to the embarrassment of her then-teenage daughter.

“I couldn’t help myself,” Martz said, with a laugh. “I didn’t have those stickers.”

Carl Sikora, 62, a retired dentist in Arcata, Calif., spotted a bright watermelon tag at the bottom of a crate while he was perusing the aisles of his local supermarket. He grabbed a sponge, dampened it and let it sit on the label for a few minutes before gently peeling the sticker off.

“I always carry a piece of wax paper in my wallet for the stickers,” said Sikora, who has more than 4,000 watermelon labels. “You never know when one will pop up.”

Most collectors scour markets for labels. But the label aficionados usually don’t buy all the produce attached to their stickers; they simply pick off labels as they shop.

“There’s hundreds of labeled fruit, so no one ever minds if you take a few stickers,” Slusarek said. “I feel like I’m on the hunt in a supermarket. It’s exciting.”

Most also trade the stickers with others online. That’s how Martz, 58, a homemaker, collected nearly 7,000 banana labels. Like most collectors, she specializes in just one fruit. Martz actively trades with other collectors-all with no money exchanging hands-through her Web site, www.beckymartz.com, where almost all of her stickers are displayed.

One of Martz’s favorites dates from 1960s Sweden. It features the cherubic face of a boy whose blond hair is made from a bunch of tiny bananas. They are “really quite beautiful,” said Martz, who plans on attending the next collectors conference in Costa Rica in December 2008. “My husband used to say that this was a really cheap hobby,” Martz said. “That is, until we started traveling all over the world.”

The Internet has turned a solitary fixation into a social event. Gerri Lorenzo, a Visalia, Calif., resident, met and befriended Martz online through a network of collectors. Lorenzo, a former stamp collector, chats online with fellow P.L.U. buffs every Sunday via Martz’s site to keep updated on the latest crop of stickers. She regularly trades with a network of more than 100 others in such far-flung places as Germany, Spain, Slovenia and China.

“You learn so much about different areas of the globe,” Lorenzo said. “We talk labels, then we talk politics and current events.” Lorenzo, a retired collections manager, created an online catalog (www.geocities.com/NapaValley/1700/) exhibiting the more than 10,000 known banana labels of the world, which she updates regularly.

About four years ago, Durand-Wayland, a Georgia company, introduced technology that uses a concentrated beam of light to tattoo the needed information on produce. Though collectors say they’ve heard rumblings about the demise of stickers, they don’t seem worried. With so many growers around the world, changing over to the expensive technology would take years, so, Lorenzo said, “We’re not shaking in our boots yet.”

Now, Lorenzo says, many of the supermarket employees recognize her as the “banana sticker lady” and offer their help in getting new labels. They tell Lorenzo about new banana shipments the moment she walks into the store, and let her peel away, without buying each fruit she plucks.

“I like to say that I liberate the stickers,” Lorenzo said. “Collecting those little labels is really an adventure.”