Upcoming ban on plastics causing restaurants and retailers problems
Beginning July 1, the city will ban meat trays made from polystyrene foam — commonly known by its Dow Chemical trademark, Styrofoam — and will require retailers to use recyclable and compostable service ware and provide appropriate bins for their disposal.
Seattle Times business reporters
In a scramble to find cups, spoons and takeout-food containers that comply with a new Seattle law on recycling and composting, some restaurants and retailers are hitting snags.
Cups are practically a slam dunk. Even plastic-lined coffee cups can be recycled in Seattle now, including those with a little liquid at the bottom. For cold drinks like soda, many varieties including the wax-lined cups of yore are compostable.
Decisions about other products are more complicated, and meat trays in particular are giving PCC Natural Markets a headache. "We've been through a half-dozen items over the last year-and-a-half," said Scott Owen, PCC's nonfood category manager and special-projects coordinator.
Beginning July 1, the city will ban meat trays made from polystyrene materials and will require retailers to use recyclable and compostable serviceware and provide appropriate bins for their disposal.
For fast-food establishments alone, the law means 6,000 more tons of leftover food and containers will be recycled and composted each year rather than taking up space and giving off methane gas in a garbage heap, the city estimates. That's about 1.5 percent of Seattle's annual garbage disposal.
Most restaurants are leaning toward compostable plates and utensils, because they do not have to be rinsed before going to Cedar Grove Composting, the Seattle area's largest composter. Soiled recyclable materials must be rinsed.
But compostable products tend to be corn-based and do not hold their form at high temperatures.
"If you take the spoon out of the hot chili, it re-forms. It doesn't become part of the chili," said Xavier Noblat, marketing manager for Bunzl Distribution and R3 in Seattle, which supplies restaurants and other retailers.
Still, melting and re-forming spoons could pose a challenge for customers.
The city is implementing a one-year waiver for utensils, straws and cocktail stirrers because of the composting issues and because local recyclers cannot process them, even if they are made from recyclable material. There is also a waiver for foil-coated paper used to wrap hamburgers and other hot food.
"We don't see that there's a replacement compostable product with adequate performance," said Dick Lilly, business area manager for waste prevention at Seattle Public Utilities.
The technology for compostable products is evolving so rapidly that the city figures there is a good chance viable alternatives for the waived items will be available in a year, he said.
Meanwhile, PCC is struggling with a special problem posed by the ban on polystyrene foam.
The grocery chain wants to use compostable material but has had trouble finding one that's not made from genetically modified cornstarch and that meets Cedar Grove's decomposing standards.
PCC avoids genetically modified products because it is a certified organic retailer and campaigns against genetically modified crops.
Butcher paper is not an option, Owen said, because customers need to see the meat they are buying, and cardboard trays suck out the juice and fall apart.
PCC might use recyclable meat trays made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, until it can find an acceptable compostable tray. Compostable products typically cost three to four times more than traditional serviceware, Noblat said, but the difference is pennies per item.
Cedar Grove, which processes 375,000 to 400,000 tons of organics a year, now accepts almost 700 food-service packaging items, said Susan Thoman, director of corporate business development.
Many of those have been approved over the past two years, she said. Cedar Grove developed some products in collaboration with 12 manufacturers and receives a small cut of the sales from those products, she said.
Companies that do not comply with the new law will be fined $250 a day, Lilly said, but the city knows not everyone will be compliant at the start and plans to work with companies collaboratively.
"We're trying to turn a very big ship by standing and blocking the wind near the bow," he said.
— Melissa AllisonTidbits
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Retail Report appears Fridays. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or email@example.com.
This story was originally posted on May 6, 2010, and corrected the same day. The story originally said that the city will ban meat trays made from polystyrene foam — commonly known by its Dow Chemical trademark, Styrofoam. That was incorrect; the type of polystyrene material trademarked as Styrofoam is not used in food packaging, although many people incorrectly refer to those products as Styrofoam.
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Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.