Lobbyists tell city officials polystyrene ban could harm businesses

June 16, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 9:10 p.m. June 16, 2009

City officials agreed tonight to work alongside business owners as the City Council considers a ban on Styrofoam to-go boxes and other food containers made from eco-unfriendly polystyrene.

A proposed ban would outlaw polystyrene food packaging. Critics said the material lingers in landfills long after Styrofoam trays and cups are tossed into the trash. Polystyrene is expensive to recycle, too.

But officials also raised questions about safe alternatives to polystyrene and how the ban would impact restaurants already grappling with consumers dining out less in the down economy. Council Sustainability Committee members met tonight to discuss the proposed ban.

“You know, these packages are used to serve takeout or in restaurants, and they typically last for a few minutes in terms of any use,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said. “The reality is, while we may only see them for a few minutes, the landfill and the environment sees them for tens of thousands of years.”

Schaer modeled the legislation on polystyrene bans in Seattle, Portland and several California cities.

“There may be a little resistance now, but I’m sure — given the success of this in much, much larger cities than Issaquah — it seems to me that we can move in the right direction,” he said.

Even Schaer acknowledged not all compostable and recyclable alternatives are as durable as polystyrene. Schaer, a lawyer, works at a firm in downtown Seattle. He recalled buying lunch at a Pakistani restaurant near his office soon after the Seattle ban went into effect.

“They were using a corn-based container that was extremely hot and the curry was starting to melt through the bottom of it,” Schaer said. “That went on for a few weeks and I think people started complaining to the owner, because he’s at the counter all the time. You know, they made a switch.”

Schaer said the new container type survived the several-block walk to his office.

Though the draft ordinance declared the ban would be effective Jan. 1, officials said a ban — if approved — would go into effect much later. Sustainability Committee members will review the measure again next month.

Josh McDonald, government affairs coordinator for the Washington Restaurant Association, said restaurateurs would need time to prepare. He said restaurant operators are also reluctant to use compostable and recyclable alternatives because polystyrene is cheaper. In turn, restaurateurs would pass the cost along to diners with higher prices on the menu.

“Any time you take steps to increase costs, it has a negative effect on us,” McDonald said. “That said, a lot of our restaurants, a lot of our folks are voluntarily moving in this direction and doing what they can and doing their part to move toward more sustainable [practices].”

City Resource Conservation Office Manager David Fujimoto said his staff planned for education and outreach efforts if the City Council bans polystyrene packaging. Fujimoto said 131 of the 800 or so businesses in Issaquah serve or sell food — 42 fast food outlets, 61 full-service restaurants and 28 stores.

Holly Chisa, Washington lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association, said her organization was working with more than 100 stores impacted by the Seattle ban. She said her organization was working with members to find products to meet the criteria outlined in the Seattle ordinance.

Emerald City officials outlawed polystyrene food containers last year. The polystyrene ban took effect in January; next year it will expand to include plastic containers and utensils.

Chisa said her No. 1 concern was the polystyrene trays used to package raw meat. Trays made from cardboard, and sugar and corn derivatives pose challenges. For instance, blood and other liquids seep through cardboard, while sugar and corn products could provide food sources for harmful bacteria.

“For a grocery store, the single most paramount concern we have is food safety,” Chisa said.

Products like pre-packaged soups would already be exempt from the proposed ban. Schaer and other committee members did not rule out additional exemptions to the ordinance.

“For instance, if you said, ‘Hey, we own this business in Issaquah and there are simply no compostable or recyclable lids that we can use that are safe for our customers,’ then the city would take a look at that,” Schaer said.

Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott talked with Issaquah restaurateurs ahead of the meeting. Bott said reactions to the proposed ban were mixed. He said officials should seek input from business and restaurant owners as they rework the ordinance.

“We would just ask for some time to get the word out, to get input and then come back with something that would hopefully be of value to this community,” Bott said.

Besides food safety, industry lobbyists raised concerns about whether alternative materials could hold up to hot food. Chisa echoed Schaer when she said some compostable and recyclable containers are not as tough as the real deal.

“Soup will break down that container faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” she said.

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2 Responses to “Lobbyists tell city officials polystyrene ban could harm businesses”

  1. No Styro on June 16th, 2009 9:42 pm

    Lobbyists? Are we in DC? Restaurants cannot just pass along the higher costs to consumers. They will pay what the market bears.

  2. Carolyn Caffey on June 17th, 2009 3:33 pm

    Create a campaign. Ask customers to bring to the restaurant their own take out containers. For those that do, enter them into a raffle where the winner receives a free meal, dessert etc… or take a $ off their bill. You need to make it “socially acceptable” for customers to bring in their own containers. Nearly everyone has some type of tupperware.

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