Next Garbage Mountain To Climb: Seattle takes on fast food in July
Safeco Field is already there, Tuesday, April 20, 2010
BY FIONA COHEN, SPECIAL TO SEATTLEPI.COM
Seattle is getting ready to become the first city in the country to eliminate fast-food packaging from the landfill.
Starting July 1, most of the wrappers, cups and packaging that comes with a restaurant meal will have to be recyclable or compostable. Seattle Public Utilities analysts predict this will keep a minimum 6,000 tons of waste out of the landfill each year –about the same amount as a garbage train 100 cars long.
Safeco Field is getting a head start on the new rules. This season staff worked with vendors to replace the food packaging at the ballpark with recyclable and compostable alternatives, and staff removed most of the garbage cans, replacing them with bins for compostables.
There are still some items that go in the garbage, such as Pepsi cups, potato chip and kettle corn wrappers and tartar sauce containers, but the program has been a success.
Of the 59 tons of waste the ballpark generated during the Mariners’ first six home games, 76 percent went for recycling and composting — double the percentage that the ballpark kept out of the landfill last year.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Scott Jenkins, Safeco Field’s director of operations. He set up the ballpark’s environmental programs.
“I think our hope was that we could go beyond 50 percent. It’s clear to me that we can go well beyond that.”
Jenkins says the ballpark is on track to knock $100,000 off its waste disposal bill.
“I hope that the restaurant folks see us and realize it’s not that difficult to switch out,” Jenkins says. “Though there might be a slight uptick in the cost of materials you’re going to buy, there’s a savings when you’re disposing of it as recycling or compost rather than a landfill.”
But for restaurant operators, the savings isn’t enough to make up for the higher cost of more environmentally friendly packaging.
Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s Inc., said the company estimates it will spend $400,000 more for disposable products at Ivar’s and Kidd Valley restaurants this year. He said his total garbage costs, including recycling and compost, were $307,000 last year.
The company isn’t planning to charge customers more, but it does add extra stress during what already promises to be a lean year.
“This economy being the way it is, it’s a very difficult time for us for our customers to pay additional costs,” he said.
But he supports the move.
“We have to make this change, because we want to get trash out of the landfills,” he said. “Is there ever a good time? I don’t think there is.”
Dick Lilly, business area manager for waste prevention at Seattle Public Utilities, says that restaurants will be paying more for alternate packaging than they will be saving in garbage costs, but the burden is shared.
“Within Seattle it’s a level playing field. Everyone has the same restrictions and buys the same packaging.”
Besides, he said, the price of compostable and recyclable food items has been coming down steadily — and the technology is improving.
“We have gone from 70 approved compostable food-service products at the beginning of 2008 to 600 now,” he said.
There are exceptions. Items such as ketchup packages or bags of chips, which are packaged by outside suppliers, do not have to be compostable or recyclable. Plastic soft-drink bottles are recyclable, but the plastic caps still go in the garbage.
The city is also going to delay the rules for several items that don’t yet have good enough alternatives.
Restaurants can keep on using foil-backed packaging for things like burgers, because there isn’t anything on the market that keeps heat in the same way.
There also isn’t a satisfactory compostable alternative for plastic drinking straws, and they’re too small for current methods of plastic recycling. And the city put off its requirement for compostable cutlery after Ivar’s demonstrated a problem.
“We showed the city that the spoons that are compostable melt when put into a cup of chowder or chili,” Donegan said.
The demonstration had an impact.
“He’s given us a hard time about the spoon, and we have responded,” Lilly said.
Ivar’s is testing new packaging and disposal bins at two fast-food restaurants. At these restaurants, customers will sort their own garbage into recyclables, compostables, and garbage.
The restaurants have been experimenting with different ways of teaching consumers what goes where. Very few people read signs. But when you tack up examples of items that go in different bins, it makes more of an impression.
As a result, those restaurants have been able to keep 50 percent or more of their waste out of the landfill, Donegan said.
Safeco Field doesn’t leave it all up to the fans. Its recycling room includes a sorting table for staff to go through the contents of bins. And a lot of trash never enters a bin. The fans leave it their seats. It’s the night cleaning crew that sorts their cups, bottles, wrappers and paper trays.
But Lilly says that restaurants can learn from their example.
“I think those numbers are well within reach for everyone in the fast-food service. I think we’ll start in the 50 percent range, and move up from there. We’re going to hit recycling rates that will be the highest in the country,” he said.
And it helps that Seattle residents are practiced at sorting trash.
“Seattle consumers are pretty savvy about recycling,” he said. “We figure consumers are the biggest watchdogs out there,” Lilly said.
Donegan says it will take some time to figure out all the details.
“It won’t be 100 percent compliant on July 1, but we’ll get there. It’s easier for us who operate professionally managed companies than it is for little Mom and Pop restaurants.”
Fiona Cohen is a Seattle-based freelance writer.
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