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Originally published Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft switches to compostable utensils, cups in cafeterias

Microsoft ditches plastic and Styrofoam in its cafeterias and kitchenettes for compostable knives, forks, spoons, cups, bowls, plates and clamshell carryout containers. That switch is one of several the company is making to reduce the amount of waste generated by the 24,000 meals served daily at its corporate headquarters campus in Redmond, where roughly 40,000 full-time employees and vendors work.

Seattle Times technology reporter

Green cafeteria

By increasing its composting and recycling efforts, Microsoft expects to dramatically decrease the amount of garbage it sends to the landfill. Here's some of what the company estimates won't be going to the landfill each year:

Serving utensils: 20.3 million pieces of cutlery. More than 40.6 million plates, cups and bowls.

Food waste: 10,000 gallons of fryer grease (being converted to biodiesel). 400,000 gallons of food scraps.

Packaging: 4.7 million milk cartons.

Source: Microsoft

The orange Styrofoam coffee cups with "Microsoft" printed in white, once as ubiquitous as Windows on the company's Redmond campus, are a thing of the past.

In their place are compostable, dark-green cups, symbolic of a broader, long-term effort at Microsoft to dramatically cut the garbage it sends to landfills.

Just don't leave your green cup half-full of coffee on the desk overnight.

On July 1, Microsoft replaced the plastic and Styrofoam in its cafeterias and kitchenettes with compostable knives, forks, spoons, cups, bowls, plates and clamshell carryout containers.

That switch is one of several the company is making to reduce the amount of waste generated by the 24,000 meals served daily at its corporate-headquarters campus, where roughly 40,000 full-time employees and vendors work.

It's also expanding recycling, sending fryer oil to Standard Biodiesel of Seattle, and composting kitchen scraps and other packaging with Cedar Grove Composting of Seattle. The effort extends across the company's U.S. properties.

"Our goal is to have 50 percent of what was going to the landfill now go to Cedar Grove," said Mark Freeman, the senior manager in charge of food services for the company globally.

On Monday, Microsoft received certified-green restaurant status from the Green Restaurant Association, an 18-year-old Boston nonprofit that consults with restaurants and food-service organizations on environmentally sustainable practices. It is the first U.S. corporate campus to receive the certification.

Unlike the University of Washington, which saved money since switching to compostable utensils in 2007, Microsoft expects a small cost increase.

"It added a little bit of cost to our portfolio," Freeman said, declining to give a specific figure. "But we really feel that it's worth the investment and it's really the right thing to do."

The new cups in particular take a bit of getting used to.

"It starts composting the minute you use it," Freeman said, noting that employees have learned not to leave half-full cups for long periods of time to avoid spills.

The compostable-utensils industry is watching demand increase as more large institutions such as Microsoft make the switch. Seattle passed a law last month requiring all businesses to transition to recyclable and compostable containers and utensils by July 2010.

"That's going to have a tremendous impact because the daily usage is huge," said Allen King, president of Excellent Packaging & Supply in Richmond, Calif., which counts Microsoft as a customer for the "SpudWare" utensils it distributes.

Compostable utensils made of potato and cornstarch are currently imported from China, where the process to make them was invented, King said. But with demand here growing, there's a move afoot to create domestic manufacturing, he said.

"This would give us an opportunity to do that," he said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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