Slow change coming

Issaquah businesses taking their time adapting to ban on polystyrene boxes

The City of Issaquah recently won recognition from the King County Solid Waste Division for reducing waste and increase recycling in the area. The city was lauded for training employees on recycling and for providing compostable containers and collection sites.

No doubt, the new food packaging ordinance the city passed in October had much to do with the honor.

The new regulations, modeled after laws passed in both Seattle and Oakland, Calif., require food service establishments to discontinue the use of polystyrene and non-recyclable or non-compostable containers. In an effort to ease businesses into the change, the first phase, which began in January, was voluntary.

“Most business owners think it’s a good thing, but they’re concerned about the cost,” said Resource Conservation Coordinator Micah Bonkowski. “The businesses that have already switched have gotten good feedback. Consumers seem to appreciate the intent of the new law.”

The majority of businesses, however, were waiting until the mandatory phase takes effect in October to change their packaging.

Much of the procrastination is likely due to the cost of the new containers. According to Costco’s Manager of Recycling and Waste Management Todd Fitzgerald, compostable materials can increase product costs for a business two to three fold.

“We are changing our meat trays in Seattle from styrofoam to a compostable foam that costs three times as much,” Fitgerald said. “For the mom-and-pop shop, a package that used to cost 2 cents will now cost up to 8 cents. While 6 cents doesn’t sound like much, once you multiply it out, it adds up.”

From the beginning, the city acknowledged this law could dramatically affect local business owners, and they set about providing information and assistance to facilitate the transition.

In February, the city’s Resource Conservation Office (RCO) sent out flyers to all food service businesses in the city detailing the law and providing tips on how to make the transition.

“We didn’t receive a lot of response from the first letter,” Bonkowski said.

So this week Cascadia Consulting will begin going door-to-door to help businesses understand the implications of the law.

Education seems to be one of the keys to getting restaurant owners on board with the changes. In addition to hiring the consultants, the RCO has met with the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce to get the word out to members, as well as coordinated with packaging manufacturers to educate sales representatives on which products are allowed in Issaquah.

Keeping polystyrene packages out of the waste stream is only one benefit, Bonkowski noted. By reducing the amount of garbage, businesses could reduce expenditure on solid waste disposal.

Compost pick up is cheaper than waste disposal, and a recycling service is available to Issaquah businesses at no charge.

Additionally, using compostable containers makes the process of composting easier by eliminating the need to separate food remnants from packaging.

At a joint meeting of the Issaquah and Sammamish councils in March of this year, City of Issaquah Councilor Josh Schaer urged the City of Sammamish to adopt a similar ordinance banning non-recyclable containers, which he said would result in savings for local businesses.

He explained that as more cities enact similar regulations, economies of scale would work in favor of businesses as compostable containers became less of a boutique, or niche product, and were produced and sold in greater numbers.

“If your city was to look at this, consider a similar ordinance, we have a large swath of the Eastside following this program,” he said. “This would reduce the cost for businesses of these products and services.”

Sammamish has taken no steps to do so.

In October 2010, the mandatory phase will begin in Issaquah. Polystyrene containers will no longer be allowed at Issaquah food service establishments, and businesses will be required to use recyclable or compostable packaging. Businesses who fail to comply will be fined.

Hot containers and lids, utensils, and raw meat trays will temporarily remain exempt from the law during this phase. However by May 2011, those exemptions will cease and no polystyrene packages will be allowed.

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